Dave Deckard of Blazersedge saw it coming.
So did Darius Soriano of Forum Blue and Gold.
Maybe you did, too. But for a moment there — after the Brooklyn Nets had forced Game 7, after the Dallas Mavericks had done the same, and after Chandler Parsons' putback reverse layup had given the Houston Rockets a 98-96 lead with nine-tenths of a second remaining — I thought Kevin McHale's crew might just pull this one out.
In that split-second, I forgot about Damian Lillard. And I'm afraid the Rockets did, too.
With 0.9 seconds left in Game 6, Blazers forward Nicolas Batum, who had just made a pivotal pull-up jumper (while appearing to slide his pivot foot in what wound up being an uncalled travel) to tie the game at 96 with 39 seconds remaining, prepared to inbound the ball, with Houston power forward Terrence Jones defending the ball. Blazers head coach Terry Stotts had stud power forward LaMarcus Aldridge, who'd torched the Rockets to the tune of 30 points through three quarters before missing all four of his tries in the fourth, stationed on the left block against the defense of Rockets center Dwight Howard, who had absolutely carried Houston down the stretch, scoring 13 points and grabbing six rebounds in the final frame.
The other three Blazers — Lillard, reserve point guard Mo Williams and shooting guard Wesley Matthews — were staggered along the right wing, opposite from Batum and Aldridge; the smart money seemed to be for Batum to look to work the ball into the big power forward for a chance to tie. (Batum confirmed this after the game.) But as the play began, Lillard streaked around the arc to the top of the key, completely losing Parsons with a quick first step. He came to the center of the court completely open; Batum gave him the ball.
"He was too open," Batum said. "I had to."
Lillard caught the pass, rose up and faded to his left from 25 feet out. He got the shot away, and in doing so reminded the Rockets what the Detroit Pistons, Cleveland Cavaliers, New Orleans Pelicans and so many other teams have found out over the past two seasons: you don't want to give Damian Lillard one last shot.
Lillard's shot splashed through at the buzzer, giving the Blazers a 99-98 win over the Rockets that clinched a 4-2 win in this sensational best-of-seven first-round series. It was the perfect end to a game that had given us such gripping back-and-forth action — 14 ties, 16 lead changes, a fourth-quarter offensive duel between Howard and Robin Lopez, of all things — and the perfect cap to a series that featured three overtime contests and countless thrilling performances authored by two teams so evenly matched as to be ridiculous. Over the course of the six-game series, the Blazers and Rockets were separated by a grand total of two points, 672-670 ... and Houston was actually the one with 672, and they lost in six games. What an insane series.
Here's what it looked like inside the Moda Center when Dame dialed in, courtesy of Blazersedge's Ben Golliver:
I think it's fair to say that Portland's pretty stoked for the Blazers to be making their first trip to Round 2 since 2000
And here's what it looked like from courtside (spoiler alert: it looked cool):
"It hurts," said Howard, who finished with 26 points and 11 boards, capping a series in which he put up at least 20 and 10 in all six games while also playing as-good-as-you-can-expect defense on Aldridge and looking more like the Orlando Magic version of Dwight than anything we've seen in the last two years. "When you put everything you got on the floor, and somebody hits you with a dagger like that ... it's tough. It's a tough pill to swallow."
"Coach Stotts drew up a great play," Lillard told ESPN's Heather Cox after the game. "He wanted me to come to the ball hard. I figured it would be really tough to get my hands on it, but Mo and Wes, they set great screens. I was able to get to the ball, square my feet up, and I raised up and snapped my wrist. I got a good look, so I'm just excited it went in."
When you look back at the replay, though, Williams and Matthews didn't really set stonewall screens; this was just a matter of Lillard beating Parsons off the ball and to the spot to make the catch. But why was Parsons on Lillard in the first place? Why wasn't Patrick Beverley — who, even fighting through a fever and a month removed from a torn meniscus, is still the Rockets' best perimeter defender — locked on Lillard? Well, as Coach Nick of BBallBreakdown notes, Beverley was on Lillard at the start of the possession, with Parsons on Williams ... but the two switched assignments just before the whistle blew, apparently at the behest of James Harden, for reasons that remain unclear.
“We had a certain defensive scheme," Harden said after the game, according to Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle. "He got loose and made a shot. He’s been making shots all night.”
But what was that "certain defensive scheme?" Why did that switch — whether called for by Harden, or dictated by something else — happen? Was it so that, once Lillard started running off the Williams and Matthews screens, Beverley or Harden could quickly pop out on Lillard and head him off at the pass as he flashed to the ball? If that was the case, then why didn't a second switch happen once Lillard broke free?
The latter likely owes to an instruction provided by McHale during a timeout immediately preceding the final possession:
It appears McHale is telling his players to just stay with their guys on the final possession, and not to switch their assignments or switch on screens. After the game, McHale told reporters that his specific instruction was not to give up a 3-pointer, a note confirmed by Howard during his trip to the podium. But if he's telling his players not to switch screens on the perimeter to make sure that nobody streaks wide open, how does that jive with the "no threes" plan?
Also, why was Harden on the court when what the Rockets needed was a stop? Why not take him off the floor in favor of backup point guard Jeremy Lin, who had helped hold Lillard to an 0-for-2 mark in the final quarter before that fateful final shot?
The more I watch the play and the more I think about it, the more thoroughly I'm confused about how the Rockets tried to accomplish the goal they said they wanted to accomplish. I think the Rockets were, too. This is probably why they didn't accomplish it.
"I've been telling you guys the whole series: You've got to always be in attack mode," Howard said. "You can never get back on your heels. And when you do, things like this happen."
“It’s the worst feeling I ever had in my life,” Parsons said, according to Feigen. “It’s crazy. You think the game is over, .9 seconds, you just got to get a stop and this locker room is totally different. We’re going home to play a Game 7 to move on. Instead, it’s over. There’s no words to describe the feeling.”
From Portland's perspective, though, Lillard — now an established late-game assassin who ranked fifth in the NBA in points scored in "clutch" situations (when the score is within five points in the final five minutes) and who shot 47 percent from the floor and 50 percent from long-distance in the final 30 seconds of games in which Portland was tied or trailed by three points during the regular season — had exactly the right words to describe what had just happened.
Those last two words kind of say it all, don't they?
Lillard finished with 25 points on 8-for-14 shooting, including a scorching 6-for-10 mark from 3-point land, to go with six rebounds, three assists and three steals in 43 1/2 minutes. Aldridge led the Blazers with 30 points and 13 rebounds. Harden scored a game-high 34 points on 9-for-15 shooting and went a perfect 12 for 12 from the foul line, to go with six assists, four rebounds and four steals to lead the Rockets. He becomes one of just 10 players since 1986 to put up 34 on 15 or fewer shot attempts.
The Blazers will face the winner of the first-round matchup between the San Antonio Spurs and Dallas Mavericks, which will be decided in Game 7 on Sunday after the Mavericks tied the series at three games apiece on Friday. The Rockets will go home, devastated, and wonder what might have been.
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