The Portland Trail Blazers defeated the Houston Rockets 122-120 in Houston to steal home court advantage in the 2014 NBA playoffs. But for a while, it didn’t seem like that was in the cards.
Damian Lillard couldn’t score.
The Blazers couldn’t stop Chandler Parsons.
And Dwight Howard was having his way with whoever the Blazers threw at him.
With just 4:30 left in the game and the Blazers down 9 points and with no momentum, Portland coach Terry Stotts decided to make a bold move by sending Nicolas Batum to intentionally foul Howard.
At first, the game seemed like it had already slipped away. Lillard was frustrated by Patrick Beverley, the crowd was juiced and ready for the inevitable win, and nothing seemed to get traction. As Howard hit both free throws and extended the Rockets’ lead to 11, and Lillard could only manage 1 of 2 on his own trip to the line, the nail was 3/4 of the way into the coffin.
Then Lillard hit a three. Stotts again called for the foul. Howard stepped to the line, and missed both, and missed the shot off the offensive rebound. LaMarcus Aldridge hit a layup. Stotts called for another foul, and Howard missed both once again. Lillard hit a layin. Mo Williams got a steal. Aldridge got an and-one.
Just like that, in less than 2 minutes, the game was tied.
With all that happened in the first game of the first round of the playoffs between Portland and Houston, the Hack-A-Howard strategy should not go without notice. There was no reasonable way back into this game before forcing Houston coach Kevin McHale‘s hand to bench Howard. There was no other way to shift the momentum so fiercely, so quickly, and while there was plenty of risk, in this moment, there was even greater reward.
Forget the ice-cold three Lillard hit to tie it with 30 seconds left, or the Aldridge tip with 2 seconds left in regulation to tie it again and force the overtime. Forget that the Blazers faced a 6-point mountain less than a minute into the extra period, and crawled all the way back out quicker than you can sing the first half of the national anthem. Even forget that both Robin Lopez and Aldridge fouled out in overtime in successive plays, leaving Portland without their only competent center AND their best player.
Hack-A-Howard deserves to earn Stotts some sort of prize, some recognition for his adjustment.
So, too, does the Blazers unwillingness to fold. They were down double-digits more than once, on the road against an opponent who was “supposed to” beat them. It would have been easy and acceptable enough to fold, especially when nothing seemed to be going right and no lifeline could be seen. But they didn’t. They fought, and fought, and fought, until the game was within plausibility. Then they fought more until it looked quite possible. Then they fought even more until the buzzer sounded. The stick-with-it-ness that characterized many of the Blazers’ comebacks this year was in full force, and much more effective in a playoff environment than it was during the regular sesson.
Also worthy of praise was Aldridge’s energy. He’s no slouch, but last night it looked like someone had given him a vitamin B-12 shot every hour on the hour for the past few weeks. He moved on defense, pressuring all the way to the three point line where, speaking of which, he hit not one but 2 shots from downtown, possibly showcasing a newfound skill that might catapult him from All-Star to SuperStar status. He was getting tangled up, bullying his way into the lane, and playing like his life depended on it. His stats reflected what the eye test suggested, and his 46 points was both a career-high and a Blazers franchise playoff record. Combine that with his 18 rebounds and 2 blocks, and you have a performance not seen since Hakeem Olajuwon in 1987. Or you can combine his 46 points with Lillard’s 31, and get a duo an NBA playoff game hasn’t seen since Jordan and Pippen in 1992. And speaking of Lillard, no player has gotten 31 and 9 in their first playoff game since LeBron James.
So much history was made tonight. But none of it would matter without the win and home court advantage.
The Blazers got both, not to mention all of the fancy stats. They get a well-deserved rest until Wednesday when they have the privilege of doing it all over again.