That one hurt just about everybody. When that final buzzer sounded, it hurt you, your heart, your girlfriend, your brother, your dog and the rose bush in the yard. It’s okay, I get it. It hurt me, too, and the only thing that made me feel better was “T.R.O.Y.” by Pete Rock and C.L. Smooth. Why, I don’t know, but the point is after looping that jam 13 times, I felt better. Maybe I slipped on my rose-tinted glasses, but when was the last time you felt that real sinking playoff pain? The pain shared by Sixers and Celtics fans today? 2003? I’d much rather be hurting than waiting on ping-pong balls.
I’m going to get this out of the way. I have found the officiating to be unbalanced and inconsistent in this series. No, it’s not why Portland is down 3-1, but the refs are calling things way too tight early and going too far in the other direction late. Houston has suffered this as well, but any game where Yao Ming plays 44 minutes and gets one foul is cause for eyebrows to be raised. Yes, Yao is a smart player, but no amount of Zen is saving you from fouls when Brandon Roy is throwing his body at you all game and you and Joel Przybilla are two elbows away from someone throwing a steel chair into the mix.
With that unpleasantness out of the way, let’s talk about the game. Things were promising early on, as the Blazers got out to an 11-4 lead and everyone but Joel had scored. Then Houston outscored us 26-11 to finish out the first and I was having flashbacks to Game 3. The second period — when one of these days the Portland bench will wake up — was much of the same. Houston role players hitting jumpers and Yao making life miserable in the paint (the 3 second rule does not exist for him, it’s a fact).
The most notable thing about the second quarter was Travis Outlaw showing signs of life, hitting a couple jumpers, playing aggressive from the wing and even driving for a smooth jam. I’ll come back to him later, but tonight made me hopeful for a Troutlaw jam session on Tuesday.
The Blazers finally made their run in the third, finishing things out with a six-point lead behind Roy and Aldridge doing nice things on offense. Things were at a standstill until the final five minutes of the game when Shane Battier happened, levitating the ball with his Duke-enchanced mind for back-to-back triples. Then Steve Blake missed two jumpers, committed a silly turnover (getting his pocket picked) and Roy was called for a frustratingly correct charge. Boom, we’re down three with 9 seconds left.
Now, let’s rehash. Rudy Fernandez had hit 6-of-10 from downtown in the first three games of the series, and has proven he can hit treys after doing three backflips while eating a blueberry sno-cone and blogging in Spanish mid-shot. Brandon Roy — he of the miracle three that beat Houston last winter and countless other clutch shots — is Brandon Roy. Travis Outlaw, on the other hand, was 9-of-30 from the field in the series and, while he’s hit many big shots, is rarely called upon for a pullup trey with the game on the line. The vast majority of the threes he’s hit, in fact, come in catch-and-shoot situations. You can see where this is going, can’t you?
Of course, Outlaw gets the nod for the trey and hits iron. Does Rudy sniff the ball? No, he’s left muttering to himself in Spanish. Does Brandon? No, he’s caught between a hard place and Ron Artest’s flexing biceps. Ballgame. Now, maybe Travis wasn’t the first option and maybe the inbounds play was botched, but if that’s the case, bad on you, Nate. This is becoming far too frequent, this messing up of inbounds plays. I watch Doc Rivers get the greatest shotoer of all time, Ray Allen, open threes out of timeouts game after game after game. It can be done. This is the second winnable game in a row where Rudy hasn’t gotten a touch when we needed the big three. No, I’m not saying fire Nate (he’s learning, too), but sometimes you go with your gut, and sometimes you just hand the ball to your best deep-shotmaker and tell him to win one for the gipper.
The biggest difference in this series — so obvious even the TNT guys who don’t do their homework anymore said it — is that Houston is getting consistent production from their role players and what the Blazers are getting is nearing laughable. Blake played a better game tonight, but he’s been a disaster in the fourth quarter. Joel and Greg get passes for having to deal with Yao and the refs. Travis? Inconsistent at best. Nic Batum has barely even gotten a chance to play, so who knows. Sergio has played himself off the roster. Channing can’t play in a series as physical as this. Only Rudy has brought his mojo, and even he’s getting his minutes yanked around. Meanwhile, Von Wafer, Kyle Lowry, Carl Landry and Chuck Hayes, not to mention Scola and Battier, are showing up and putting their stamps on the games. The Blazers just have Roy making the last charge of the light brigade with LaMarcus providing covering fire while Joel fights a dragon in a field.
(Subliminal message of the day: Doesn’t Bayless deserve a shot? Just five minutes where he can go to the hole and maybe draw a foul or two on Yao?)
The real unsung hero of this series — aside from Przybilla, who has been a Warrior in way Lloyd Banks wouldn’t understand — has been Ron Artest. Good lord, whoever is whispering in Artest’s ear that he is Kobe, keep that game up. Artest keeps hitting those silly, leaning threes at the end of the shot clock, but everytime he takes on of those, he needs three more ridiculous heat checks to stop shooting again. He alone has shot the door open for Portland over and over, and I don’t know how long we can count on Ron Artest trying to plus up his swag.
Unfortunately, Game 4 was probably the most important game in this series. The Blazers could’ve gotten home-court advantage back, but they let two winnable games slip away. Now, they have to win three in a row, including one in Houston, to advance. I have faith, folks, and I think we will win Game 5, but Game 6 is going to be a slugfest. I said from the beginning I don’t think Portland wouldn’t win a Game 6 in Houston, and while I’m not going to write them off, I’m worried that we already had our best shot.
But please, everyone write off the Blazers. Make Houston comfortable. Get LaMarcus angry. Ignite the most flammable crowd in the NBA. Because the most likely time for magic to happen is when everyone says it won’t.