When the first-round matchups of the NBA playoffs were set, many analysts tabbed the Western Conference series between the No. 4-seed Houston Rockets and No. 5-seed Portland Trail Blazers as the most watchable tilt of the bunch. It hasn't disappointed so far, and Sunday night's Game 4 — the third overtime game of the series — only added to the drama.
Not surprisingly, it came down to the final possession. With eight seconds left in the extra period and the Rockets down 121-117 after two missed free throws from Blazers star LaMarcus Aldridge, Dorell Wright fouled Game 3 hero Troy Daniels on a three-point attempt. Daniels hit all three freebies, after which Mo Williams nailed two foul shots to knock the lead up to three points. With 7.9 seconds on the clock, the Rockets had one last possession to tie things up.
It did not go well. Lacking a timeout to advance the ball, point guard Patrick Beverley had to advance it quickly and (likely) find one of his team's superior shooters for a game-tying attempt. He never got that chance, though, because Wes Matthews jumped off his man to force a steal and seal the game. Take a look below:
It's unclear if Matthews was originally trying to foul Beverley, but the result clinched a 123-120 win for Portland that gives them a 3-1 lead and three chances to move on to the second round. However, in keeping with the crazy nature of this series, the action didn't stop at the final buzzer. As both teams exchanged pleasantries and left the court, Rockets guard James Harden and assistant coach J.B. Bickerstaff engaged in a war of words with Williams after the Blazer brushed up against Daniels. It's unclear what was said, but Williams looked to be the most boisterous of the group.
Perhaps the drama of the full game had something to do with it. While the last-possession steal will and should get the most attention of all this game's plays, the end of regulation had its own major moments. With roughly 20 seconds on the clock and the Rockets up 104-102, a mad scramble for the ball resulted in Nicolas Batum finding Williams for the go-ahead three-pointer:
The Rockets didn't go away. After Dorell Wright split a pair of free throws to put Portland up 106-104, Houston had a chance to tie or go ahead with eight seconds left. A tie proved to be surprisingly easy — Harden found Dwight Howard for a two-handed slam:
The Blazers took control in overtime and had a 119-112 lead heading into the final 90 seconds, but the Rockets made them work for the win. With 17 seconds left and the Rockets down only 119-117, Harden isolated the much taller Aldridge on the perimeter with Matthews doing his best to front Howard inside. But the dual mismatches proved to make little difference, because Aldridge forced Harden into a long three as Matthews effectively fronted Howard in the post. If not for that defensive excellence, the Blazers would have been a much different position in the final seconds of the game.
They avoided that fate due to the balanced offensive attack that has been their trademark all season. Four Blazers scored 20 points or more, including Aldridge (29 points, 10 rebounds and four blocks), who has entered impressive historic company with his performance in these first four games.
The Rockets, while obviously more inclined to seek out what's gone wrong, saw some improvements in this game. Harden, who entered Game 4 having shot 27-of-82 (32.9 percent) from the field and 8-of-30 (26.7 percent) from long range in the series, managed decent, if also uninspiring, marks of 28 points on 9-of-21 shooting. Meanwhile, Dwight Howard continued to be his team's best all-around player in the series with 25 points and 14 rebounds, looking something like the superstar he was in his best years with the Orlando Magic. Plus, Chandler Parsons had 26 points on 11-of-18 shooting. The Houston defense still leaves a lot to be desired, but its offensive output suggests that the production is not wholly absent. It's just that the Rockets haven't grabbed the wins necessary to avoid three straight elimination games.
In a series this tightly contested, the outcome has rested on a few key plays. Three of the four games have gone to overtime, with the one outlier's outcome not settled in the final minute. Although the Blazers seem to hold a commanding 3-1 lead, their average point differential in the series is just plus-2.3, which suggests that the Rockets, with two home games left, have a decent chance of bouncing back. In a very competitive first-round across the NBA — the seven overtime games so far are already a record for the round — this series looks like the closest of the bunch, no matter when it ends.
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