This is what playoff basketball is all about.
A Damian Lillard three-pointer at the buzzer gave the Portland Trail Blazers a 99-98 win in Game 6 against the Houston Rockets to advance to the second round for the first time in 14 years. Sports Illustrated's Ben Golliver even tracked the days since the Blazers were dumped out of the 2000 postseason:
Blazers beat Rockets in Game 6, advance in playoffs for first time in the 5,080 days since Game 7 WCF loss to Lakers in 2000.— Ben Golliver (@BenGolliver) May 3, 2014
Fans don't care how long they've had to wait because Lillard's three made all of that playoff disappointment disappear in a matter of seconds.
He finished the game with 25 points, six rebounds and three assists. He also shot 6-of-10 from three-point range to join Ray Allen as the only other player to score 15 or more points and make two or more three-pointers in each of his first six postseason games, per Trail Blazers PR:
Damian Lillard joins Ray Allen (1999-2000) as only players with 15+ points and 2+ 3-pointers in each of his first six career playoff games.— Trail Blazers PR (@TrailBlazersPR) May 3, 2014
Lillard's shot was all the more dramatic since Chandler Parsons looked like he handed the Rockets a 98-96 win after a put-back with 0.9 seconds left. Coincidentally, it was Parsons who lost track of Lillard on the game-winner.
Lillard was spelled by LaMarcus Aldridge, who led the team with 30 points and added 13 rebounds. Robin Lopez and Wesley Matthews added 12 points apiece as well.
The Columbian's Erik Gundersen brought up a great point. If Portland was going to prevail on Friday, it would have to do so the hard way:
They say closeout games are the hardest and the Blazers will have to withstand James Harden's best performance of series to close tonight.— Erik Gundersen (@blazerbanter) May 3, 2014
Before the game, Harden talked about how when the Rockets were hitting on all cylinders, they were hard to beat, per Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle:
When everybody’s involved, it’s hard to guard us. It’s tough to lock in on one guy when everybody is involved and playing at a high level.
Defenses start worrying about other players, Chandler (Parsons) making shots, Patrick (Beverley) making shots and Jeremy (Lin) knocking down shots and our bigs involved, it opens the floor up. It’s just playing and having great basketball instincts.
That didn't exactly happen, as Houston's star duo were often shouldering most of the scoring load.
While Harden can sometimes struggle with efficiency, that wasn't a problem on Friday. He shot 9-of-15 for 34 points while making all 12 of his free throws.
Grantland's Zach Lowe thought the Rockets star played his best game of the series and exploited the weaknesses in the Blazers' defense:
Harden looks like a different person on offense in this game. Just has a zip to him.— Zach Lowe (@ZachLowe_NBA) May 3, 2014
Like, Harden could have been attacking close-outs via Howard post-ups that way all series. Where has that been?— Zach Lowe (@ZachLowe_NBA) May 3, 2014
Lillard's game-winner also overshadows how much Howard carried the Rockets in the fourth quarter:
Dwight Howard has scored 13 of the Rockets' 17 points in the 4th quarter.— Kevin Pelton (@kpelton) May 3, 2014
He finished with 26 points and 11 boards and was arguably the most consistent player all series for Houston.
The first and second quarters both finished 29-28 in favor of the Rockets, but they could've easily swung the Blazers' way.
Portland was down as many as 10 points, 27-17, with 2:39 left in the first quarter before going on an 11-2 run to close out the first frame.
The two teams exchanged the lead in the second quarter, with the Rockets ultimately carrying a 58-56 lead into the half.
The Rockets' persistence was all the more impressive when you consider both Howard and Omer Asik were carrying three fouls. They were having a hard time handling Aldridge in the post:
3 fouls on Asik, 3 on Howard, and LaMarcus Aldridge is heating up for the Blazers, who are down 1 late in the 1st half. #HOUvsPOR— NBA on ESPN (@ESPNNBA) May 3, 2014
That competitive first half set the stage for what would be a compelling second stanza, capped off by Lillard's heroics. This was no doubt a fitting conclusion to a great series.
The Blazers will meet the winner of the Game 7 between the Dallas Mavericks and San Antonio Spurs on Sunday in San Antonio.
Even with the Spurs' and Mavs' respective postseason pedigrees, you can't discount how much confidence the Blazers possess after this series win.
It went toe-to-toe with one of the best teams in the league for six games. More importantly, Portland closed out the series at home, avoiding another trip to Houston for a Game 7.
These young Blazers may have just turned a corner on Friday night.