There are times when you see two elite players go at it and you think, “damn, there’s no way to stop those guys, is there?”
The first half of this game was a clash of the titans if there ever was one. Dwight Howard, who said before tonight’s game that he wanted the ball more, was unstoppable, hitting free throws and getting dunks at will over Robin Lopez. He had Houston’s first 13 points, going 6-6 and looking totally indomitable.
On the other end, LaMarcus Aldridge picked up where he left off after his 46-point performance on Sunday, scoring 8 points of his own in the game’s first 5 minutes.
For a moment, it looked like Howard’s better was better than LMA’s better. For a moment, Howard looked like a superstar-level player going against just a star-level player.
Then, the oddest thing happened: Howard went to the bench. Which, frankly, is not the first thing a coach thinks to do to their best player, who had just scored ALL of their team’s points, just a few minutes into a game. A playoff game. A playoff game that the Rockets needed to win after dropping the first at home and losing home court advantage.
Meanwhile, Aldridge stayed in and kept pushing. Poking. Prodding. Finding his spaces. Making his shots.
Sure, Howard had 25 points at halftime, and all Shaq could do was keep saying “BARBEQUE CHICKEN” and repeat over and over again, how dominant Howard was. But Aldridge had 23. And Charles Barkley had to tell Shaq what we were all thinking: Howard’s push was not sustainable.
Shaq laughed him off. Maybe the rest of the county did, too. But then the third quarter started. Howard missed some shots. Missed some free throws. Made some bad passes. Turned the ball over. Meanwhile, Aldridge stayed in and kept pushing. Poking. Prodding. At the end of 3 quarters, Howard had an admirable 26 points, but Aldridge had an unbelievable 39.
By the fourth quarter, other Trail Blazers started contributing. Dorell Wright had some timely shots. Damian Lillard got to the line. Mo Williams hit a few. And the complexion of the game was very, very different from when the Rockets took an 8-point lead behind a seemingly unstoppable force.
It’s not to say players don’t get tired, or aren’t allowed to take a break when they’ve given their all. But there was something telling about that moment, when Howard was at the peak of his dominance, that a timeout wasn’t enough to keep him going. He needed to check out.
And check out he did for much of the second half. Mammoth shoulders slumped like a November Jack-O-Lantern. Expression frozen in a picture of disbelief. Hands thrown in the air like he just did care after perceived bad calls. Meanwhile, Aldridge kept at it. And of the two, by the end of the game, he was the one who looked like the superstar.
There was quite a bit else going on in this game, too. First, a bit of the bad: Robin Lopez looked totally demoralized in the first half. As good as Howard was, Lopez was every bit as terrible, letting the ball slip through his hands on rebounds, getting worked in the post, and refusing to go up for his patented #RoLoSmash dunks because he heard footsteps behind him; instead tossing it carelessly to a teammate and sometimes having it stolen in the process. But it didn’t matter. He came ready to play in the second and deciding half, hitting shots, boxing out, and punctuating everything with a volleyball spike on a Jeremy Lin layup. It was a great way for him to make up for a bad start.
Also bad: Williams, again for much of the early part of the game. As the game went on, he realized that, no, dribbling wasn’t everything, and that maybe he could make hay as a spot-up shooter. It worked.
Some good and bad: Lillard had a really, really bad shooting night. The good: it wasn’t always because he had to score and couldn’t, but sometimes because the issue didn’t need forcing. With 18-8-11, he very nearly had a triple-double, which my no research tells me would have been the first time in playoff history a team had a 40-point scorer AND a triple-double from two different players in the same game.
The good: Dorell Wright stepped up when the Blazers desperately needed something, anything off the bench. His 15 points off 4-5 shooting fit the bill quite nicely, and the 3-4 from deep was particularly welcome.
The unsung good: Joel Freeland came on for a few minutes and did everything he needed to do, altering a shot, getting a few boards, and handing out 4 fouls in short order. So, okay, maybe averaging 2 fouls a minute won’t actually cut it most games, but when the Blazers needed to rest but still have somewhat of a defensive presence, there Joel was.
The Blazers take an unlikely but well-earned 2-0 series lead with them back to Portland, and as much as they took Howard’s best shot today and survived, they had better plan for James Harden waking up at some point. Dude is 14-47 so far. That level of terribad isn’t gonna last. But no matter how you slice it, the Blazers are in the driver’s seat, and should be looking to stomp on Houston’s throat since they’ve been given the opportunity to do it.
 Editor’s note: Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen accomplished this feat against the New York Knicks in the 1992 Eastern Conference Semifinals; the same year they met Portland in the NBA Finals and Jordan earned his second ring.