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:
We've had four jump balls in 14 1/2 minutes (not including opening tip.) That's a sign of players hitting the floor after loose balls.— Jonathan Feigen (@Jonathan_Feigen) May 1, 2014
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:
Lillard’s 10 leads all scorers and after 1 it’s the Trail Blazers 27, Rockets 30 #RipCity— Trail Blazers (@trailblazers) May 1, 2014
There was an interesting development, though, that both teams had to deal with, per Joe Freeman of The Oregonian:
Aldridge and Howard both start the second quarter despite their two fouls.— Joe Freeman (@BlazerFreeman) May 1, 2014
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:
Up 41-27, Rockets have largest lead in the series. Rockets have had double-digit leads in four games.— Jonathan Feigen (@Jonathan_Feigen) May 1, 2014
The Rockets have opened the 2nd Q with an 11-0 run and lead the #Blazers 41-27. I think it's their largest lead in the series.— Joe Freeman (@BlazerFreeman) May 1, 2014
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:
Count it! The Beard hits the +1, has HOU's lead back in double digits.— Houston Rockets (@HoustonRockets) May 1, 2014
However, Portland answered, and Jason Friedman of Rockets.com acknowledged that it was inevitable given the way this series has unfolded:
Rockets race to 14 pt lead so naturally this series' equilibrium kicks in and Blazers quickly cut deficit in half.— Jason Friedman (@JasonCFriedman) May 1, 2014
Rockets see Blazers' 7-0 run, answer with 1 of their own. HOU's D far & away its best of series so far. And that's w/ D12 in foul trouble.— Jason Friedman (@JasonCFriedman) May 1, 2014
Lopez and Lillard both scored at important times to get their team back in the game:
RoLo Hook Shot: Activated #RipCity— Trail Blazers (@trailblazers) May 1, 2014
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:
At halftime, Damian Lillard is leading the Portland Trail Blazers in points (18), rebounds (6), assists (4), steals (3) and field goals (7).— Alex Kennedy (@AlexKennedyNBA) May 1, 2014
While the action on the floor was certainly intriguing, SB Nation NBA was keeping track of the important stuff during halftime:
Clutch the Bear shoots like 50 percent on those backwards half court shots. At least— SB Nation NBA (@SBNationNBA) May 1, 2014
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:
McHale's decision to keep Asik in the game after picking up his 4th foul looming large right now. Now sure where HOU would be without him.— Jason Friedman (@JasonCFriedman) May 1, 2014
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:
Lopez takes down Howard, who screams for a flagrant. Gets the call, but officials will review. Pretty clear cut.— Jonathan Feigen (@Jonathan_Feigen) May 1, 2014
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:
That three gives Matthews 18 points in the third quarter, 27 in the game.— Mike Tokito (@mtokito) May 1, 2014
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 ALL previous 4 games, the @trailblazers have won the 4Q vs Rockets. They must be 7 better than Houston... or we're headed back to PDX— Adam Bjaranson (@adamblazers) May 1, 2014
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:
When did Houston -- home of the Astros, Texans and okay-ish Rockets -- become "Clutch City"? Was there a vote I missed?— DJ Gallo (@DJGalloEtc) May 1, 2014
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:
Jeremy Lin entered Game 5 avg 9 pts per game, shooting 36% from field (17% from deep) in series. He has 21 pts on 9-14 (2-5) shooting tonite— Joe Freeman (@BlazerFreeman) May 1, 2014
Lin with 21 after consecutive jumpers give Rockets a 9-point lead. His playoff high was 14. Confidence is soaring, always when he's his best— Jonathan Feigen (@Jonathan_Feigen) May 1, 2014
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:
Rockets over the limit with nine minutes left against the best ft shooting team in the league. Foul is Asik's fifth. Howard has 4.— Jonathan Feigen (@Jonathan_Feigen) May 1, 2014
Things took a turn for the worse in the foul situation with about five minutes remaining:
Omer Asik picks up foul number 6, T Jones checks in.— Houston Rockets (@HoustonRockets) May 1, 2014
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:
Damian Lillard is first player with 125+ points and 35+ assists in first 5 career playoff games since Tim Hardaway (April 25-May 5, 1991).— Trail Blazers PR (@TrailBlazersPR) May 1, 2014
Damian Lillard is a monster. So scary that he's doing this in his first playoff series.— Alex Kennedy (@AlexKennedyNBA) May 1, 2014
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.
Who wins Game 6?
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.