It's a question that we've asked before, and after falling to the Blazers in overtime last night, it's one that the Rockets are probably asking themselves a lot this morning: How the hell do you beat the Blazers?
There was a moment during last night's game when it looked like the Rockets were about to take control. It came in the second quarter, when Houston went on a 24-6 run and were well positioned to end the first half with at least a 10-point lead. With 4:39 left in the quarter, James Harden crossed over Wesley Matthews, dropped a layup on his head to make it 44-33, and came down mean mugging right in Matthews's face. It was the kind of play that so often marks the turning of the tide in a playoff game, one that simultaneously energizes the home crowd while demoralizing the road team. Here's how the Blazers responded to that play.
- Nic Batum catches a high screen from Thomas Robinson and zips a perfect bounce pass to a cutting Wesley Matthews for an easy dunk
- Lillard and Matthews run a 1-2 pick-and-roll, leading to an easy layup for Lillard
- Thomas Robinson gets the ball at the right elbow, and then blows right by Dwight Howard with a spin move before getting his shot goaltended
- Batum and Aldridge run a pick-and-roll, Batum hits Aldridge with a beautiful drop pass, and Aldridge draws the foul
- Dwight Howard fouls Robin Lopez and gets T'd up. Lillard hits the tech free-throw, Lopez hits both of his freebies
- Batum hits a 20-footer in transition
- Aldridge barrels into the lane from the elbow, draws a foul and hits two free-throws
If not for a James Harden three to end the half, the Blazers would have started the second half up by two. What's incredible about that run to close the half isn't that it happened—good teams go on big runs when they need to—but how it happened. The offense was essentially running through Nicolas Batum during that stretch, and the biggest play was the foul Robin Lopez drew while wrestling with Dwight Howard. It's really, really hard to put a team away when that team can hurt you from so many different angles. The Blazers don't have to rely on one star or a particular pet play when they need points in a hurry. They can ride through one of the crisis points of a playoff game with their three-and-D small forward running the pick-and-roll, their rock troll of a center hitting two huge free-throws, and their backup power forward turning one of the most athletic big men in the league into a traffic cone.
The Blazers just kept coming. When the Rockets got up by 11 once again with just over five minutes to play in the fourth quarter, it was time for Aldridge and Lillard to go supernova—with an assist from Terry Stotts's expert deployment of hack-a-Howard—and devour Houston's lead. And when Houston started the overtime period with six quick points, it looked like the Rockets were about to finally snuff out the Blazers' chances. But there was Aldridge, who never shoots threes and wasn't really hitting on his jumper at all, splashing a three-pointer from an impossible angle to cut the lead to three.
Then came Batum, hitting a three of his own and tying the game up all over again. A six-point lead ain't much, but when Batum's shot fell through, it felt like one had never disappeared so quickly.