The Houston Rockets returned to Clunk City form Wednesday night, blowing a big chance to close out the inexperienced Portland Trailblazers and win their first series since 1997.
Now, the Rockets face a must-win game six in which they will be favored but far from secure.
No team this decade knows more about blown first round leads than this one. They are experts. The creme de la creme.
If anyone can invent a new way to choke away command of a playoff series, it's the Rockets.
Such a futile history makes losing game five 88-77 sting just a bit more. Oh, you didn't have to conjure the ghosts of the last 12 years did you?
Most of the Blazers rotation cogs have never played a road contest as important as game six, and that bodes well for the Rockets. Maybe if they stomp on the gas pedal early, Portland will be too gassed and demoralized to fight back.
However, if we've learned anything about Brandon Roy and his budding superstardom, we know he will not quit. Rudy Fernandez has played in mammoth games in one of Europe's most competitive leagues. Do you expect a proud Olympic medalist to concede defeat easily?
I believe in the Rockets because I have seen them respond to extraordinary misfortune.
Their most talented player, Tracy McGrady, spent the first half of the season stuck in a revolving door. Then, he called it quits and opted for a surgery that could end his career.
Shane Battier, Ron Artest and so many others missed contest after contest with nagging foot problems. Yao Ming sat out several games, stirring memories of his funereal exit during last year's stretch run.
General Manager Daryl Morey shipped out veteran Rafer Alston and handed the offense to a little kid named Aaron Brooks. Some nights he looks like the next Tony Parker. Others, he looks inept, clueless and too small for the big moment.
Did I mention that gangsters shot jovial, athletic forward Carl Landry in the leg after one of the season's best road wins? One more shot five inches higher and Landry would be in a body bag instead of in uniform for this critical series.
The can't-catch-a-break Rockets deserve one. No team has faced what this one has, and it's not close.
No team deserves to be rewarded for its stunning resilience more than this one, and again, it's not close.
However, as I plea for some mercy and good fortune from the basketball gods, I also find the words of Harvey Dent to be applicable here.
You make your own luck.
The Rockets can makes theirs Thursday night if they win. One not-so-simple victory will exorcise 12 years of demons and riding Hakeem Olajuwon's dominant but distant coattails.
Yao Ming will never touch Hakeem's greatness, but with a series triumph he will at least remove himself from the perennial loser doghouse.
I'll say it again. Battier is 30, Yao 28. The Rockets cannot win later with these players.
It's now or never.
How they do it doesn't matter. If Yao scores one point and they win, fine. If he scores 40 and they win, even better.
If Battier wins it with a halfcourt shot—well, that will not happen. Leave it to me to dream up the funny stuff.
There is nothing humorous about this team's disturbing lack of killer instinct in game five.
The Blazers mounted furious runs in every quarter. Good teams do not allow opponents to run up double digit leads in all four periods.
They blew it when a four point lead in the fourth quickly became a 15-0 Portland run that iced away any chance of a closeout.
The Portland fans, players and coaches want to win. Good for them.
What would be the purpose of the playoffs if one team came into every matchup thinking, "Geez, losing sounds fun?"
The Rockets cannot lean on excuses this time. The supposed ball hog and ultimate playoff loser has been nowhere near the team for most of the series. Many of you said McGrady's absence would fuel a series win.
What will it say about the constantly praised Yao and Battier if they cannot take up the burden?
In every series there are excuses.
In 2003, Yao was too raw and the Los Angeles Lakers were too robust, muscular and determined.
In 2005, the Dallas Mavericks boasted more weapons.
In 2007, the Jazz had the more complete team.
In 2008, the Jazz ousted them again but without Yao.
Anyone else notice the pattern here?
When losing becomes habitual, it can at times feel acceptable.
Losing this series is not acceptable.
Kevin Garnett and Manu Ginobili provide satisfactory excuses. T-Mac does not.
The Rockets need to do more than finish off the young Blazers. They need to validate a tumultuous season with a winning finish, even if it's ugly.
None of that will matter if the Rockets falter again.
You can catch a great team on a bad night in the regular season. You can't do that four times in the playoffs.
If the Rockets emerge victorious, management will know that Yao and Battier can perform under pressure—even if just in the first round. The bid to keep Von Wafer and Ron Artest would look a lot better.
Most of all, the hustle-hound that is Luis Scola would be rewarded for always giving a damn. In a season where it sometimes appeared like everyone was content to surrender, the Argentine kept them going.
He was the one telling the opponent to put up its hands. He was the one reading the Miranda Rights.
A win would also revamp Artest's tarnished reputation. Every NBA fan should root for this guy to be seen as a winner. He cares, and at heart, he seems like a good guy.
The team so easy to root for can also pull the rug from under your feet when you're ready to do a celebration dance.
As Coach Rick Adelman so often says of this bunch, "they don't make it easy."
They brick critical free throws and stop running the offense in so many second halves. They lose composure and sometimes allow bad luck to get the best of them.
Maybe that's the fun of it. If so, it's also the bane.
The Toyota Center scoreboard flashes the words "the adventures of Ron Ron" every time he scores for a reason.
Every day brings another emprise.
The Rockets know how they must end this one. Win, and fans finally have some tangible evidence this franchise is headed in the right direction.
Lose, and the trade winds will blow in faster than Enron collapsed.
The Rockets don't make it easy, but I believe.