The Houston Rockets flipped the script on the Portland Trail Blazers in Game 5 of their NBA playoffs series.
Portland outscored Houston in the fourth quarter in each of the first four games, but it was the Rockets who made the critical plays down the stretch Wednesday.
In fact, Portland cut a double-digit deficit to two points with just over two minutes remaining, but James Harden answered with a reverse layup and a critical three-pointer with the game on the line. Throw in a couple of important defensive stops for Houston in the final two minutes, and all of a sudden we have a series again after the Rockets' 108-98 victory.
Dwight Howard led the way with 22 points, 14 rebounds and three important blocks, while Jeremy Lin added 21 points, four assists and two steals. Wesley Matthews paced the scoring for the Trail Blazers with 27, and Damian Lillard nearly recorded a triple-double with 26 points, eight rebounds, seven assists and four steals.
The Houston Rockets were fighting for their postseason lives on their home floor, despite the fact that they were the better seed in the series. NBA on TNT set the stage right before tipoff:
Somehow Trail Blazer Robin Lopez was able to keep his concentration during pregame introductions, as this picture from photographer Bruce Ely revealed:
The opening quarter was a back-and-forth affair, and Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle pointed out that the players were bringing the expected amount of energy to a game of such high magnitude:
After trading mini-spurts throughout the opening 12 minutes, Houston took a 30-27 lead. The Rockets’ Twitter page noted Howard’s production, while the Trail Blazers’ countered with Lillard’s:
There was an interesting development, though, that both teams had to deal with, per Joe Freeman of The Oregonian:
Despite Howard’s foul trouble, Houston jumped out to an 11-0 run to start the second quarter (it was part of a 15-0 run that stretched back into the first quarter). It was the largest lead that any team held at any point in the series, which was a testament to how close the games have been thus far:
After trading baskets for a couple of minutes, Houston got hot and opened up a 51-34 lead. Harden and Troy Daniels both scored critical baskets during the run, as the team and the NBA pointed out:
However, Portland answered, and Jason Friedman of Rockets.com acknowledged that it was inevitable given the way this series has unfolded:
Lopez and Lillard both scored at important times to get their team back in the game:
After Portland closed the first half on a 14-5 run, Houston held a 56-48 lead at intermission. Portland urged its fans not to give up on the team, while Alex Kennedy of Basketball Insiders noted that Lillard was doing his very best to keep the Blazers alive:
While the action on the floor was certainly intriguing, SB Nation NBA was keeping track of the important stuff during halftime:
Houston stretched its lead back to double digits in the early going of the second half by pounding it down low with Howard. However, Portland climbed right back to within four thanks to back-to-back three-pointers by the sharpshooting Matthews:
Omer Asik answered the bell for the Rockets, though, which was critical because he had four fouls early in the third quarter:
A crucial moment occurred with just under three minutes remaining in the third quarter. Lopez picked up a flagrant foul on Howard when Houston was up by five, although Howard had to get the refs' attention to receive the call:
Even with the flagrant foul, it turned into The Matthews Show in the final minutes of the third quarter, as Mike Tokito of The Oregonian pointed out:
Matthews had 18 points in the third quarter alone, and his 27 after three were a playoff career high. But despite Matthews' hot hand from deep, it was Houston that took an 82-77 lead in to the fourth quarter.
The start of the fourth quarter was good news for Portland if recent history was any indication, via the team's television studio host, Adam Bjaranson:
In fact, Houston didn't win a single fourth quarter in the first five games.
In light of the Rockets' fourth-quarter struggles, DJ Gallo of SportsPickle raised an interesting question:
Lin of all people took control of the opening minutes of the final quarter. He had struggled mightily in the first four games but came through in the clutch Wednesday:
Even with Lin hitting shots, Houston had something to worry about. The foul trouble was starting to catch up to it, and the Blazers cut a nine-point lead to three in a matter of less than two minutes with Howard on the bench:
Things took a turn for the worse in the foul situation with about five minutes remaining:
Lillard scored on a string of possessions that cut the Houston lead to two points. What is perhaps most incredible is how young the point guard is at this point:
Just when it looked like Portland was going to win another game in the final minutes, James Harden scored five straight points and a monumental three-pointer to stretch the lead to 103-98:
A few free throws and defensive stops later, and the Rockets sent the series back to Portland with a 108-98 victory.
If nothing else, Wednesday's game should give the Rockets confidence they can close out a fourth quarter in a tightly contested game.
They will get to test that newfound confidence Friday in Game 6 in Portland, and if they cannot answer the bell, their season will be over. Harden made the critical plays down the stretch on the offensive side, while Howard registered a handful of important blocks in the final two minutes as well.
However, things won't be so easy in Portland. Fortunately for Houston, coach Kevin McHale seemed to have the right mindset for the postseason, according to the Associated Press, via ESPN.com: "The playoffs are a grind. It's a different game than the regular season. You've got to be built for the grind."
The Trail Blazers enjoy one of the best home court advantages in the entire NBA, and the Moda Center will be rocking with a chance to close out the series.
Look for Portland to jump out to an early lead behind the energy of the crowd and ride that to victory. Yes, the Rockets were the better team Wednesday down the stretch, but the Trail Blazers have proven themselves capable of winning these contests in crunch time.
Lillard will beat the Houston point guards again Friday, and the early lead will be enough to register a first-round series win.