So we're right down to it now- the brink of elimination. Backs against the wall and all that. After fighting tooth and nail for that home court advantage the Blazers are one loss away from the early offseason that most predicted out of them. There are several factors that have come in to play, which I will touch on later, but really the main issue in this competitive series is that the Blazers are looking young and lack execution in key stretches- not something an experienced playoff team would allow to happen. I don't intend for this post to sound like a eulogy on the Blazers season, but let's just say they have an uphill battle ahead of them to advance.
After dropping game one at home Portland found themselves in the undesirable position of having to win a game in Houston to advance. At the start of the playoffs the Blazers had dropped four straight and 11 of 12 in Houston, their worst active road streak this side of Los Angeles. Clearly that was on their mind at the start of game three and they came out very nervous and tight, much like the start of the ill-fated Game One. Lot's of standing around, isolation, and long jumpers against the shot clock was theme in the first quarter while Houston moved the ball smoothely and got good looks both inside and outside, though unlike in Game One the Blazers were able to contain Yao Ming and thus Houston couldn't run away with it in the first quarter.
In the second quarter Portland loosened up some, but so did the Rockets. A big key was early foul trouble for the Blazers bigs against Yao- one advantage they were supposed to have was Oden against the reserves of Houston after they lost Dikembe Mutombo, but it wasn't to be. Instead it was Channing Frye, and there as no advantage to be had. Also, the Rockets did a terrific job of bottling up Brandon Roy after he dropped 42 on them the game before. At the end of the half Houston enjoyed a 48-37 lead.
In the third Portland finally locked up on defense and Houston stopped hitting the long jumpers that had been dropping all series long. While the Blazers didn't exactly explode on offense (neither team has since Houston in Game One), they were able to command the tempo as Roy and Steve Blake got loose for some good looks. Also, Rudy Fernandez came completely alive and was The Man for large stretches as Portland trimmed the lead to seven heading into the final period.
In the 4th the Blazers staged a valiant rally spearheaded by Rudy and Blake, at one point pulling to within one point in the final minute. Poor execution on both ends in the final 30 seconds cost the Blazers a chance at stealing a win (and had they been able to win it would have been an absolute robbery as Houston looked in command for most of the game). First Roy fouled out on a series of, er, questionable touch fouls. Then, with Portland down three and about ten seconds to go the Blazers had the ball, but Blake hoisted a highly ill advised deep three over a double team with still eight seconds to go. The shot was deflected and Houston hit enough free throws to hold of Portland in n 86-83 victory.
For the game Louis Scola led the Rockets with 19 points and 9 rebounds while Shane Battier added 16 points (including a couple of dagger threes in the final five minutes) as well as stellar D on Roy. Roy led Portland with 19 points (on only 6-18 shooting) and Rudy pitched in 17 off the bench.
In Game Three Portland was lucky to be in it at the end. In Game Four Houston was the team that had to be feeling fortunate. The first half went largely back and forth with both teams staging runs and comebacks. Yao Ming was getting free for shots for the first time since the first game, and Portland countered with Roy and a suddely energetic Travis Outlaw, who had his best game of the series. At the half the Rockets were up 50-44, but nobody felt that lead was secure given the flow of the game to that point.
In the third quarter Portland game out on fire and the Rockets came out cold. Yao was ineffective and the role players weren't hitting their shots for Houston while Roy and Outlaw continued to play aggressive and hit their shots. Portland threatened to pull away at several points in the third, but Houston did just enough to keep them in striking distance and trailed by six at the start of the 4th.
The 4th quarter of this game was one of the most frustrating quarters of basketball I've ever watched. Portland was given a golden opportunity to grab a win on the road and swing the series back in their favor. Houston also was shooting terribly and the Blazers were still hitting their shots. So how was Houston able to come back? Well, at one point about midway through the final stanza Houston had missed 12 shots and grabbed the offensive board on NINE of them. Credit them for showing incredible hustle and desire, they obviously wanted to win this game more than the Blazers. Portland had the best rebounding differential of any team in the regular season, but the Rockets grabbed an astounding 10 offensive boards in the 4th quarter alone. As the Rocket clawed closer and closer the Blazers played tighter and tighter, often relying on isolations or high screens for Roy, and while he executed well they were too stagnate to maintain the lead. In the final minute Portland had the ball down two or three on four different occaisions and went 0-4 in those situations. On one of them Roy missed a contested layup but Joel Przybilla grabbed the offensive rebound, only to throw it over Blake's head for a backcourt violation. On another (perhaps the most key one) the Blazers had the ball down two with ten second to go and ran a (surprise!) isolation to Roy, who drove the lane and had his shot simultaneously blocked by Battier and committed an offensive foul. He failed to notice Rudy alone in the corner for an open three. After Houston split their free throws on the other end the Blazers were down three with about five seconds to go and had a play drawn up that would either get Rudy or Outlaw a corner three or Roy a three from the top if they weren't open. It wasn't to be as Outlaw took the inbounds and simply whirled and shot a contested 29 footer with about 4 seconds to go. Needless to say the shot didn't fall and Houston fit their free throws and won 89-88, pushing their series lead to 3-1 and putting Portland on the brink of elimination.
Yao led the way with 21 points and 12 rebounds while Scola (unquestionably Houston's MVP of the series) added 17 and 8. For Portland Roy 31 points and went 13-13 from the line while Aldridge added 19 and 10 rebounds.
Yesterday three playoff coaches were fined $25,000 for comments made on the perfomances of the referees in this postseason. One was Doc Rivers of Boston, and the other two were Nate McMilland and Rick Adelman. I personally find that very interesting, that opposing coaches both had gripes. I also concede there was legitimacy to both of their complaints. First, Yao is being called for almost nothing and Roy is routinely pounded on his drives to the basket with no whistle. On the other end Yao is being more or less mugged by Przybilla and Greg Oden and isn't getting a lot of calls (compared to the number the realistically could be called). There's no denying the refs have made several questionable calls and have been off their game, but I truly think they haven't been a deciding factor in any game. In every game in this series the team that executed when necessary has won the game.
So, anyway, back to stuff ON the court. Before this game both Roy and Aldridge were suffering from various maladies- Aldridge with a sore elbow that prevented him from shooting in practice and Roy from a particularly bad case of the flu that forced him to miss shootaround and take an IV before the game. Of course both started, but there was some question as to how effective they could be. However, once the game started it was clear that neither star would allow anything to be an excuse. Roy hit five quick points before taking an early rest seven minutes in and Aldridge provided a low post presence that the team so often has lacked this series. Meanwhile, in a bit of a change of rotation, Rudy came off the bench early and starting gunning, hitting a quick two and then a three to open up a 23-13 Blazer lead. Houston fought back behind the efforts of Scola, who hit six straight 15-18 footers from the elbow and finished with 15 first quarter points. Portland led 29-26 at the end of one (incidentally, the winner of the first quarter has won the past seven games between these two teams).
In the second quarter there was a rare Sergio Rodriguez sighting. Sergio, who has been largely removed from the rotation this postseason, came in and had a handful of drive-and-dishes that kept the pressure on Houston. While offense was comparitively limited in the second, Portland was able to widen their lead due to some bailout jumpers by Blake and some efficient hustle by Outlaw (who struggled yet again on offense). Aldridge also continued to play well to nullify the efforts of Scola, who continues to impress Houston fans and draw the ire of Portland fans. Portland outscored Houston by four in the second and went to halftime up 7.
Houston obviously recognized the importance of forcing the ball to Yao in the third and also did their best to deny Roy the ball. Everyone else for Portland went cold except for Aldridge, who scored 10 of Portland's 14 in the third. Portland was able to close out on Scola and haggle Yao enough to limit Houston to 19 in the period. Another big key was that Houston point guard Aaron Brooks, a major catalyst in the series, decided he would be in charge of the comeback but wasn't nearly as effective as he had been in game's past. He had some wild drives and ill-advised long shots that killed a few Houston rallies, otherwise the Rockets would likely have been leading heading into the 4th.
As is Houston still managed to start the 4th on a 6-0 run and grab a 68-64 lead as Blazermaniacs everywhere held their breath. Then Oden came in and played his best defensive shift of the series, allowing only two shots from Yao despite numerous attempts from the Rockets to go through him. Oden also rotated well to protect the rim against some drives from Von Wafer and Brooks. Meanwhile, Roy came back alive after showing fatigue in the middle quarters. Coming out of the timeout after Houston grabbed that four point lead the Blazers went on a 15-0 run, headed by Oden's defense and back to back threes by Roy and Outlaw. Houston wouldn't get any closer than five the rest of the way and the Blazers went on to win 88-77 to hang on to their playoff lives.
Roy and Aldridge led the way with 25 points apiece despite their respective ailments. Roy scored 15 in the final quarter while Aldridge had 7 rebounds, including some key ones during the decisive minutes of the 4th. Scola again led Houston with 21 points (though only 7 after the first quarter) and Yao added 15 and 12 rebounds but was stifled in the 4th by the combined efforts of Oden and Przybilla.
3 Keys to Game Six-
Despite the spirited Game Five win, Portland is still in dire straights. They are still on the brink, and they still have to win the Houston. Here are a few things they have to do in order to win-
1. Start Rudy!!!!-
I love, love, love the play of Nicolas Batum. He's a terrific perimeter defender and excellent hustle guy. However, the Rockets have no real perimeter threat since losing McGrady and Batum is offensively limited, allowing Battier and Artest to shut down Roy for stretches. Batum is key when there is a Kobe or a Carmelo Anthony to defend, but he can't body up Artest and Battier isn't a scoring threat.
Portland needs another scoring threat on the floor, and Rudy has been largely knocking down his shots this series. The problem with starting Rudy is that it forces Roy to defend Artest, but Ron Ron hasn't exactly been on fire this series. Roy also has defended Artest rather well when put in that situation previously. I also contend that the best lineup that Portland can use (though I don't suggest they start with it) is the large lineup or Roy-Rudy-Outlaw-Aldridge-Oden/Przybilla. It puts one more perimeter scorer than Houston can defend on the floor and gives Portland an edge in rebounding. This lineup is what brought the Blazers back in Game Four, and even if Outlaw and/or Rudy aren't hitting their shots it forces Houston to choose who Battier and Artest defend, because Brooks or Von Wafer can't check Roy or Rudy.
2. Attack, attack, attack-
A lot of Portland fans cry "foul" at the officiating in the series, pointing at the large foul disparity without digging a little deeper. If they'de look below the surface they would realize that Houston gets to the line more because Brooks, Lowery, Wafer, and Artest continually attack the rim while Roy is the only one taking it to the lane regularly for the Blazers. Aldridge has been effective when he takes an eight foot fadeaway over Scola (who simply can't defend that shot) and ineffective when firing 19 foot faceup jumpers. Outlaw's best game came when he took it right at the defense, which simultaneously opens up his jumper and forces Yao to rotate and work harder.
Portland had a big advantage from the line in Game Five due to Aldridge, Blake, and Roy attacking the rim and getting Houston into the penalty early in the 4th. In those marginal losses in Houston a total of three players attempted free throws. That isn't bias from the refs, it's a lack of aggressive basketball on the part of Portland. Roy can't do it alone, he needs other guys, notable Outlaw and Aldridge, to continue to take it inside and earn the whistles. The refs won't to them any favors, but it isn't like they are out to get them either.
3. Rotate on defense-
The Blazers have done a terrific job of containing Yao this series, limiting him to 15.6 ppg this series. However, I believe that he scared them with his Game One performance (9-9 shooting, completely unstoppable) and thus Portland has overcompensated for him inside. Every time he catches it down low (when he gets past Przybilla or Oden fronting him) he is doubled with the big behind him and Aldridge coming to the front. When this happens Scola drifts to the top of the key and Yao, excellent passer that he is, gets it to the Argentinian for an open 17 footer (basically his favorite shot). In the series Scola has 17.5 ppg after averaging 12.8 in the regular season.
If Houston does hang on and win the series, the efforts of Scola will be the biggest reason. Hard as this will be to commit to, Portland has to let Yao have his way if Scola gets on a roll and leave Joel or Greg to handle the Chinaman one on one. If Aldridge can get in the face of Scola his production will be severely limited because he doesn't have the best array of post moves. This will mean that Yao will get his more often, but Scola has proven that he can carry Houston if the Blazers let him, and if the Blazers lose I'd rather lose at the hands of Yao than at the hand of Scola. I also think that 20 ppg out of Yao and 12 out of Scola is better for Portland than 15 out of Yao and 18 out of Scola.
Much as I hate to admit it, I think Portland's playoff run ends on Thursday in Houston. The Blazers had two terrific chances to steal a win and couldn't capatilize, and I have to believe that the Rockets are going to be as determined as we've ever seen them since they want to end this first round curse they've endured. Though the Blazers played fantastic yesterday, Houston probably largely saw this game as a freebie and didn't play with the same intensity in the first half as they had in previous games.
Some media outlets in Portland are saying with this most recent victory the pressure has shifted to Houston to defend their home court because they don't want a Game Seven at the Rose Garden. I don't buy that one bit. The pressure is still squarely on the Blazers because they have to win in a place where they simply don't seem able to or they are done. I'm not saying Portland can't or won't win, I'm just saying it seems highly unlikely. If I had to put a percentage chance on it, I'd say close to 15% that Portland forces a Game Seven. I do expect Game Six to be close, but the Rockets will likely make all the big plays down the stretch.
If by some narrow chance the Blazers are able to force that decisive game, I do like their chances. First, Houston will be near panic due to their first round futilities in the past. Second, Portland will have a massive home court advantage. Finally, the Blazers thrive on momentum and will have a sizable amount of it if they are able to somehow win in Houston. But again, the possibility that this even happens is very very slim.
Either way, the Blazers have been a terrific team this season and just earned a very tough first round draw. Even if they don't advance, they've gained valuable experience for future playoff runs that are certain to be fruitful