Only one thing left to do
Blazers have three cracks at finishing off first-round series
HOUSTON -- The question after the Trail Blazers' ride-the-wild-surf 123-120 overtime victory over Houston Sunday night at the Moda Center wasn't, "How in the world could three of the first four games of the playoff series gone to an extra session?"
It was, "How could the fourth contest have not?"
The Blazers and Rockets are so mind-bendingly evenly matched, it will almost be an upset if Wednesday night's Game 5 at the Toyota Center doesn't go beyond the normal 48 minutes.
And though the chance to claim the franchise's first playoff series victory since 2000 is so close the Blazers can taste it, it's no given that Houston won't come back to win three in a row.
"We're not celebrating too early," Portland's LaMarcus Aldridge said Sunday night after the Blazers broke the Rockets' hearts. "We still have some work to do."
The Rockets will go down swinging, if at all. The effort has been there from both sides through this remarkable four-game duel between the Western Conference's No. 4 and 5 seeds. Every game has gone down to the final minute. Three of the games have gone to the final possession.
The Blazers have had just a little more than their adversaries. Now they have to do it one more time, attempting to claim a rare third road win in a series.
"It will be tough, just like the first two games," said Portland's Damian Lillard, who is averaging 25.5 points, 7.5 assists and 6.0 rebounds in the series. "Doing it three times is really tough, but it's not impossible.
"You get a team down three games to one, you don't want to let them believe too much. They're a good team, a confident team, and I'm sure they believe if they win one at home, come back, win one here and get it to seven, they'll have a great chance. we'll take the same mind-set we've had these past four games, and try to do what I guess is considered to be almost impossible."
Portland has shot better than Houston in the series, from the field (.464 to .438), from 3-point range (.362 to .309) and from the foul line (.798 to .738).
The Rockets have won the rebound battle, especially on the offensive glass (72-52), but that's about the only place where the Blazers haven't measured up.
They even got Wesley Matthews going offensively in Game 4. The man who has kept Houston's James Harden in check throughout the series -- and made the steal on Patrick Beverley that sealed the win at the end of overtime in Game 4 -- scored 21 points on 8-for-15 shooting, a bad sign for the Rockets.
"That's Wes," Lillard said. "I wasn't surprised by that. He competes as hard as anybody in this league on both ends of the floor. He's matched up against one of the tougher offensive players in the league. He brings it consistently. Having Wes on our team is huge. He was one of the main reasons we were able to get it done."
Quietly, Nicolas Batum has made his presence felt, especially in the last two games, when he has totaled 51 points. In the series, Portland's small forward is averaging 17.8 points, 7.0 rebounds and 6.7 assists.
"Nic provides us with a lot of things," Portland coach Terry Stotts said. "A lot of people get caught up on whether he takes enough shots. He plays the game the right way and looks for opportunities to make his team better."
Harden likely will come out aggressively Wednesday night. So, too, will Dwight Howard, who is averaging 27.0 points, 14.3 rebounds and 3.0 blocks in the series. Aldridge and Robin Lopez will take turns defending Houston's agile, rugged 7-foot center.
"Dwight is one of those guys who is going to play at the rim," Aldridge said. "He's very physical trying to get there. It takes a lot of effort and focus to try to get him from getting dunks or easy shots."
Houston coach Kevin McHale noted the playoffs are a different beast than the regular season, that a team has to grind out victories. Aldridge used the same verb in describing the Blazers.
"We're growing," he said. "With every game, we learn more about ourselves. We grinded out the season. We had tough wins and tough losses. We've put ourselves in a really good position right now. I think we can keep getting better. It's not going to be easy, but it's possible to get a win" Wednesday night.
Aldridge, who scored 46 and 43 points in the first two games at Houston, is averaging 35.3 points in the series. He's not worried about hitting the 40-point mark again.
"The Rockets "will key on me, and I won't have too much easy stuff," he said. "I don't see a 40-point game, but guys have been playing great for us. Guys will step up."
Lillard said the Blazers' resolve was fortified late in the regular season, when they lost eight of 11 games.
"There was a two- to-three-week stretch where we couldn't win back-to-back games, couldn't put teams away," he said. "We were flirting with being in ninth place (in the West). We had a couple of team meetings, got the ship going back in the right direction. It made us a tougher team, a closer team, and it prepared us for right now."
McHale talked about the need for more hustle, for better execution, for getting after loose balls, for playing better defense.
"There were times (Sunday night) where we stood there and just watched guys shoot," he said. "We can't do that. The good news is, we get to go back to Houston and do battle again on Wednesday."
The Rockets will either extend the series or write themselves an early start to vacation.
The Blazers hope to just keep what they're doing, even if they have to go overtime to do it.