Posts Tagged ‘Blazers’

Spurs’ MVP beauty more than skin deep

By Fran Blinebury, NBA.com


VIDEO: Parker leads Spurs to Game 1 rout of Trail Blazers

SAN ANTONIO — They gave out the Kia MVP award earlier in the day.

Kevin Durant over LeBron James in the ultimate 1-on-1 beauty contest.

But the Spurs have never been ones for strutting their stuff down the runway.

Tim Duncan and Tony Parker finished in a tie for 12th place.

“I can’t wait to tell them,” said their coach Gregg Popovich.

There was no need for him to tell the Trail Blazers, who were on the wrong end of a 116-92 clubbing in the opener of the Western Conference semifinal series on Tuesday night.

The Spurs, of course, have been running an entirely different kind of race for years, one that never quite looks right in a bikini.

This is not the way championship teams are supposed to be constructed in the NBA, a league that has always been built on individual stars who are able to hoist entire teams up on their backs.

Mikan. Russell. Kareem. Bird. Magic. Isiah. Michael. Shaq. Kobe. Wade. Dirk. LeBron.

But here are the Spurs winning a league-best 62 in the regular season while trying their damnedest to look a basketball version of the Rockettes, one huge chorus line where it’s the high kick of the collective that most impresses.

“That’s a championship team,” said Blazers guard Damian Lillard, the star of a team celebrated for getting out of the first round for the first time in 14 years. “They came out with more energy than we did. They threw the first punch on both ends of the floor.”

That’s because the Spurs have been throwing punches in these postseason situations since only what seems like the dawn of time. Duncan alone has played more playoff games (219) than the entire Portland franchise.

“They did what championship teams do,” said Blazers forward LaMarcus Aldridge. “Most of the guys on (our) team haven’t even been in the second round and they’ve won championships. They’ve been here. I think they definitely came out and let us know how it’s going to be.”

That is, like playing an octopus armed with a set of butcher knives.

While Parker grabbed the spotlight in Game 1 with 33 points and nine assists, this is not his wagon to pull. Not alone. Not all by himself through the long playoff grind.

Parker is the match, but the fire comes from a Spurs lineup that burns deeper than any other in the league.

Perhaps the only team in NBA history to win a championship without a truly singular star was the 2004 Pistons. Ben Wallace was their highest finisher in MVP voting that year. Wallace was 10th. Yet he, Chauncey Billups, Rip Hamilton, Tayshaun Prince and Rasheed Wallace took down the mighty Lakers.

The Spurs have taken that approach one step further, spreading the wealth and conserving their energy all season long in order to be fit and ready for this charge.

Not a single player on the Spurs roster averaged 30 minutes this season. Parker was tops at 29.4.

The Spurs had nine different players who averaged at least 8.2 points and nobody higher than 16.7.

No stars? Tell that to the Blazers, who were seeing them before the end of the first quarter.

This was a Portland team that went into Houston to open the first round of the playoffs and arrogantly rearranged the furniture in winning the first two games on the road. On this night, they were lost, befuddled, hopelessly overmatched.

“They play your plays,” Blazers coach Terry Stotts said. “They knew where and what we were going to do. They did what all teams do in the playoffs.”

The Spurs just do it better.

All that angst and worry when they were pushed to seven games in the first round by the No. 8 Mavericks.

Too slow, too old, too tired?

So in the past two games, San Antonio has averaged 117.5 points, won by an average of 23.5, shot 54 percent from the field and 42.5 percent on 3-pointers.

The Spurs’ defense bodied up Lillard and kept him from doing damage in the paint, kept a lid on Aldridge early and never let the Blazers grow an ounce of confidence.

By the second quarter, the little-used Kiwi-by-birth, Australian-by-passport Aron Baynes was tossing around Portland like throw pillows and the Spurs never let the Blazers get closer than 20 at any time in the last 28 minutes of the game.

When Parker capped off his night with one especially dazzling spin drive, drew a foul and stood at the free throw line late in the third quarter, the home crowd rose with the obligatory chant: “MVP! MVP!”

By that time, it had already been given to someone else who doesn’t play for the Spurs.

Don’t bother to tell them.

Rockets left picking up pieces again

By Fran Blinebury, NBA.com

VIDEO: Lillard’s buzzer-beater sends Rockets home, Blazers to next round

PORTLAND, Ore.Damian Lillard’s “Rip Ciiiitttyyy!” shout was still bouncing off the walls and his dagger remained stuck right in their gut when Rockets team owner Leslie Alexander and club president Tad Brown stood in a back hallway of the Moda Center, heads down, eyes searching.

For what? For whom? Carmelo Anthony? Chris Bosh? LeBron James?

Will a few more high-dollar free agents finally get the Rockets out of the first round of the playoffs for only the second time since 1997? Is the idea to buy up every available big name in the NBA so there will be nobody left to do what the Blazers consistently did in the fourth quarter?

That is, perform down the stretch.

Clutch City, indeed. The Rockets routinely treated the fourth quarters like a wad of cash in the pocket of a drunken sailor and wound up with the same kind of what-happened hangover.

“This is the worst feeling I’ve ever had in my life,” Chandler Parsons said after he watched Lilllard run away from him in the last 0.9 seconds and into NBA lore.

Parsons, of course, is just 25 and quite likely too young yet to comprehend that if a basketball game is the worst loss you’ve ever suffered, then life has been pretty darned good.

Dwight Howard, on the other hand, just finished his 10th NBA season no closer to a championship than when he left Southwest Atlanta Christian Academy.

“It hurts,” Howard said. “We can’t grow anymore. We go home.”

The Rockets go home to an offseason of having to wonder if the combination of Howard and James Harden will ever enough to take the franchise back to the glory years of truly contending — and winning — or if they are simply pair of celebrities in search of a lead dog who can pull their wagon to a championship.

Harden is now working on three straight years and three straight series of shrinking in the playoffs. His 34 points in Game 6 was the first time he came close to looking like a front-line star. In his last three playoff series — vs. Miami in 2012, OKC in 2013 and now Portland — the only thing more bedraggled than his beard has been his shooting percentage. Is the playoff air, when teams can scheme against him for seven games and employ elite level defenders, too thin for Harden? He hardly ever shoulders the burden of responsibility or the mantle of leadership.

Howard has worked diligently with Hakeem Olajuwon, with the coaching staff, with anybody offering help, to improve his game and yet the coin toss odds on having him at the free-throw line and his happy-go-lucky persona will always leave questions until or unless he gets it all done.

“We didn’t win, so in my mind having a good regular season is nothing,” Howard said. “You’re sitting at home watching another team hold up a trophy. That’s what we all play for. So it hurts too be going home early. It’s hurts to be watching somebody [else] holding up the trophy. We wanted a chance to get it this season. This should just push us next season.

“I know it’s going to make me continue in the gym, continue to get better and also push these young guys so they can understand that you can’t take these moments for granted. Nothing’s promised. The playoffs aren’t promised. Rings aren’t promised. You gotta go out there and earn it.”

The bashing of coach Kevin McHale will sound like a bass drum throughout the summer and maybe it will be proven that he is not the one to guide them down the championship path. But McHale did not lose Game 6. He did not fail to tell his players not to give up anything but a 3-point shot in the last 0.9 seconds. He cannot turn back the clock and play like the Hall of Famer he was during all those years in Boston.

Sweeping McHale out of the door is not the answer. The team responds to him. They play for him. He has a year left on his contract at the team’s option and so you give it to him with a last chance.

The championing of Jeremy Lin as a creative cross between Kobe Bryant, Magic Johnson and Leonardo Da Vinci by his cult following will persist. Lin is a capable, hard-working player who has proven he belongs in the league. But he is not transcendent and, if the Rockets are going to make a big play in free agency this summer, he and Omer Asik will both be gone to make room under the salary cap.

“It’s a tough loss, but something we’ve got to learn from,” said Howard. “Like I said the whole series, we can’t take any possessions off. We can’t relax. Every bucket counts. Portland came in and played with a lot of confidence.

“We’ve got a great nucleus of guys. Everybody has to come back next season and see the mistakes we made this year as a team and try to learn from them so next year we don’t have situations like this.

“You’ve got to play with confidence. You can’t relax. Some of the guys on our team, including myself at times, we relaxed on the floor. Nothing is easy. I’ve been to the Finals. I’ve been to the Eastern Conference finals. I’ve been to the top and it’s not easy getting there.

“You’ve got to make everything count. I think that’s a big lesson for us all. No matter who we play, no matter what happens in the regular season, you can’t take any team for granted.

“Portland came out and played from the first game. … Those guys played together. Just watching their mentality on the floor, it was good. It was a seasoned team. So there’s a lot of things we can learn from this series and hopefully come back next year and be a lot better.”

Lillard becomes one for the ages

By Fran Blinebury, NBA.com


VIDEO: Damian Lillard joins Arena Link to discuss the big shot

PORTLAND, Ore. — Teammate Thomas Robinson says you ain’t seen nothin’ yet. This was just a start for the kid.

If that’s the case, Damian Lillard‘s next trick will likely be a re-creation of that old McDonald’s commercial with Larry Bird and Michael Jordan: “Over the freeway, through the window, off the scoreboard…”

It wasn’t just a dagger through the heart of the Rockets. It was the kind of shot that defines a career, creates a legend and trails you like a permanent ray of sunshine long after the sneakers and jersey come off and the hair has turned gray.

The official play-by-play sheet called it a “25-foot, 3-point jump shot.”

And Moby Dick was just another whale.

“I’ve seen him do that kind stuff, make shots like that for the past two years,” said Wes Matthews. “From the first day you saw him out on the practice court, you could tell from the way he carried himself. He’s just, well, different.”

It’s the difference that allows a neurosurgeon to poke around inside somebody’s brain with with the sheer confidence, maybe the utter arrogance, that he just won’t slip with the scalpel.

It’s the difference that diamond cutter has when he knows that he won’t turn that big, expensive bauble into cheap rock with a bad tap on the chisel.

“I mean, I got a pretty good look,” said the 23 year old who might as well be an ageless Yoda doing tricks with a light saber. “Once I saw it on line, I said that’s got a chance. It went in, but it did feel good when it left my hands.”

It came after Chandler Parson‘s out-of-the-blue put-back had given the Rockets a 98-96 lead with 0.9 seconds left.

“The first thing I did when I saw Parson’s shot go in was look at the clock,” Lillard said. “I saw there was time. I knew we would have a shot. I just didn’t know what kind.”

It was the kind of shot that will replayed on the giant video screen at the Moda Center or whatever new-fangled arena comes next for as long as they play basketball in Portland. The biggest last-second shot in Blazers’ history.

It came fittingly on a night when the franchise honored the legendary coach Jack Ramsay, who led the Blazers to their only NBA championship in 1977 and died on Monday.

Rip City — R.I.P. City — indeed.

Up on the screen, there was grainy old color film of Dr. Jack in his wild ’70s disco era plaid pants and wide collars jumping for joy as his share-the-ball Blazers clinched the title.

Down there on the court, just an hour or so later, there were the linear descendants of those Blazers — who move without the ball, do all the little things and play unselfishly — leaping into each other’s arm.

“When he made the shot, I didn’t let him go for the next three minutes,” said LaMarcus Aldridge, the workhorse who carried the Blazers, averaging 29.8 points in the series.

It was not just a Portland moment, but an NBA moment, the kind that should be frozen in Jurassic amber.

Lillard’s was the first buzzer-beating shot to clinch a playoff series since John Stockton did it to the Rockets’ ancestors in the 1997 Western Conference finals.

Put it a gold frame and hang it behind a velvet rope with:

Ralph Sampson‘s rim-rattling prayer that beat the Lakers and sent the Rockets to the 1986 Western Conference Finals.

Garfield Heard‘s heave for the Suns that forced triple overtime at Boston Garden In the 1976 Finals.

Derek Fisher‘s running miracle with 0.4 seconds in Game 5 of the 2004 Western Conference finals that beat the Spurs.

— And yes, even Michael Jordan‘s hanging, leaning, drifting to the side jumper over a helpless Craig Ehlo in the Bulls’ Game 5 clincher of the first round in 1989.

That last one started a legend. To hear the Blazers tell it, their second-year guard is already writing the first few chapters of his own.

“Oh, he’s doing things all the time in practice and all season long in games that you just don’t expect and maybe don’t think are possible,” said center Robin Lopez.

“I’ve been around the NBA for 10 years and played a lot of games with a lot of players and seen a lot of things,” said guard Mo Williams. “I’ve seen shots, yeah. Have I seen a shot like that? Noooooo.”

It ended a series that had three overtime games, only one margin of victory that was by more than single figures. The only double digit lead of the night lasted just 16 seconds. The biggest lead of the second half by either team was four. The cumulative score of the entire series had the Rockets ahead by two points.

Just like they led by two with 0.9 seconds left and when Lillard zipped away from the defender Parson and came zooming wide open right toward the inbounding Nicolas Batum.

“I clapped my hands at Nico,” Lillard said. “He threw it to me and I turned. The rim was right there.”

And Lillard let it fly.

If we ain’t seen nothing yet, that next chapter will be a doozy.

L.A.’s Law: Get him the ball

By Fran Blinebury, NBA.com

PORTLAND, Ore. — For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.

Newton’s third law.

LaMarcus Aldridge‘s Game 6 law.

Now it’s the Blazers’ turn.

After early foul trouble and a double-teaming defensive vise of big men shut off the scoring faucet, the Blazers’ leading scorer needs to come back.

“I’ll be better tonight. I’ll play a whole lot better than last game,” said Aldridge following Friday’s shootaround, after shooting just 3-for-12 and finishing with only eight points in Game 5.

In a closely contested series where he has had to make constant tweaks to try to stop Aldridge, Rockets coach Kevin McHale came up with a winner on Wednesday night in Houston when he had Dwight Howard come immediately to Aldridge as soon as he caught the ball to wrap him up with Omer Asik.

“That was a different change for them, because they normally had not come so quickly,” Aldridge said. “They usually waited until I made a move, but they came quick.

“It was both. It was foul trouble, then I lost my rhythm.”

Blazers coach Terry Stotts said the Blazers will make small adjustments to free up Aldridge, but “won’t try to reinvent the wheel.”

Teammate Wesley Matthews says it doesn’t require anything more than the Blazers taking care of their business in making the transition from defense to offense.

“I think we got a little sloppy and need to tighten things up defensively,” Matthews said. “If we take care of things with our defensive rebounding, not give them so many second chances and then get the ball up the floor and get into our offense faster, we’ll be getting the ball to L.A. before they have a chance to set up.

“It’s not really something that’s home L.A. It’s on all of us. We’re in this together.”

Linsanity lets Rockets keep heads

By Fran Blinebury, NBA.com


VIDEO: Rockets top Blazers in Game 5 to stay alive

HOUSTON — In the end, it looked like every single reason that had pushed team owner Leslie Alexander to search around in the sofa cushions to find the $168 million and change to bring in a couple of big, big stars.

There was Dwight Howard going to work in the low post for nifty little jump hooks, powerful drives to the basket and also gobbling up critical rebounds coming down the stretch.

Here was the laboring James Harden at long last pulling a meaningful 3-point shot from somewhere out of his beard and coaxing it through the net just when the game was hanging in the balance.

At crunch time, for once in this compelling series, the Rockets didn’t get crunched.

But you’re crazy if you think Houston would have lived to play another day without a little ol’ dose of Linsanity.

It’s funny that Game 5 of this most compelling first round series should find Jeremy Lin in the role of fire-starter — and maybe season saver — getting the full-throated appreciation and roar from the Toyota Center crowd.

Before Sam Presti played Santa Claus and dropped Harden right down the Rockets’ chimney and before Howard had that ill-fitting season to live and die in L.A., this was going to be Lin’s team.

Flip the calendar back 21 months to the summer of 2012 and this was going to be his team. His face was ubiquitous on billboards that line the freeways, he could be seen smiling from the sides of buses.

Then Harden and Howard happened. Then Patrick Beverley arrived.

Things change.

They changed again dramatically from Game 4 to Game 5 as well. The last time Lin was seen was Sunday night when he shot just 1-for-6 from the field and made a critical turnover in the final minute of regulation that allowed the Blazers to go on tie and win in OT.

This time, Lin took the baton from Beverley, who has been sick and ailing for several days, and practically turned back the clock to those crazy nights when he became a worldwide phenomenon at Madison Square Garden.

He zigged when the Blazers’ defense zagged. He found the cracks that let him get into the lane and all the way to the basket. He found the openings and the nerve to pull up and stab in long jumpers just when the Rockets seemed ready to topple again.

“He had these two big 3-pointers at the end of possessions as the shot clock was ending,” said Blazers coach Terry Stotts. “Those were big momentum plays for them and they took a little bit out of us.”

Lin finished with 21 points, four assists and two steals in the Rockets’ 108-98 Game 5 victory. But it was a six-minute span late in the third quarter and early in the fourth when Portland cut their lead down to a single point and he was practically a one-man roll of duct tape holding the Rockets together.

There was the unpredictable style, those unorthodox moves that take him from the baseline back out the top of the key in the wink of an eye and that unmatchable, often inexplicable verve that can pick up and arena and put it on his skinny shoulders.

“I felt like I needed to be more of a spark tonight,” Lin said. “I haven’t done a great job of that this series. After the last game, I was really upset and I just believed and focused,” he said.

That changed in Game 5 when the Blazers’ Wes Matthews said that Lin was a deciding factor in the game.

“It seemed like Jeremy Lin hit big shot after big shot,” said Matthews said. “He was attacking the rim, hitting shots. We have to do a better job defensively on him.”

He’s still like summer lightning. You never know where or when he’ll strike and the damage can be significant. But Lin now has to pick his spots and wait his turn in the bigger, grander hierarchy of the Rockets.

“Jeremy has had some very good games for us,” said coach Kevin McHale. We needed him. He had a great stretch there where he was able to break people down. They were trying to pressure him all over and he broke the pressure down and going in the paint and made a couple of floaters.

“When they’re putting that much pressure on us, it really is hard to run an offense. You’ve got to break people down.”

The Rockets will chalk it up as $168 million well-spent with Howard and Harden delivering at the end.

But when the season was hanging in the balance, it was that dash of Linsanity that kept them from losing their heads.


VIDEO: Lin and Parsons discuss Game 5 win

Hang time podcast (episode 158): the Sterling verdict and featuring Bob Rathbun

By Sekou Smith, NBA.com

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — Banned for life!

Those three words, those three simple words uttered by NBA Commissioner Adam Silver Tuesday, will alter the landscape of the league for generations to come.

The racist and bigoted comments from longtime Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling will not be tolerated. Silver made that clear in response to a nasty exchange between Sterling and a lady friend of his that surfaced over the weekend.

We dive in on the fallout, the playoffs and all that comes with it this time of year in the NBA on Episode 158 of the Hang Time Podcast: The Sterling Verdict and featuring the TV voice of the Atlanta Hawks Bob Rathbun.

The Washington Wizards have already pulled off the first shocker of the playoffs, sending the Chicago Bulls fishing. Can the Hawks really pull off this first round upset of the Pacers? And the Grizzlies over the Thunder? The Trail Blazers over the Rockets?

Dive in for all of that and more on Episode 158 of the Hang Time Podcast: The Sterling Verdict and featuring Hawks TV voice Bob Rathbun …

LISTEN HERE:

As always, we welcome your feedback. You can follow the entire crew, including the Hang Time Podcast, co-hosts Sekou Smith of NBA.com,  Lang Whitaker of NBA.com’s All-Ball Blog and renaissance man Rick Fox of NBA TV, as well as our new super producer Gregg (just like Popovich) Waigand and the best sound designer/engineer in the business,  Jarell “I Heart Peyton Manning” Wall.

– To download the podcast, click here. To subscribe via iTunes, click here, or get the xml feed if you want to subscribe some other, less iTunes-y way.


VIDEO: NBA Commissioner Adam Silver annouces that he has banned Clippers owner Donald Sterling for life

Hakeem to Dwight: It’s mind that matters

By Fran Blinebury, NBA.com


VIDEO: What does it take to come back from a 3-1 deficit?

HOUSTON — It was 20 years ago when I entered a Rockets locker room in Phoenix and got a lesson in mind games.

Hakeem Olajuwon was sitting at a stall in the cramped room for the visiting team, lacing up his sneakers. His Rockets had lost the first two games at home to Charles Barkley and the Suns, then won Game 3 in the desert.

Still the Rockets were the team in the hole just a little more than an hour before tipoff of Game 4 when I mentioned to Olajuwon that the heat and the pressure were again on his team.

He looked up, smiled peacefully and reached out to pull a folding chair up next to his.

“Sit down and let me explain,” Olajuwon said. “The pressure is all on Phoenix. Because they know if we go back home 2-2 they will have wasted having the advantage. The know we will win Game 5 at home. They will have to fight to survive in Game 6 and then they will not have a chance in Game 7 in Houston. That is why they will feel the pressure. They know they must win tonight.”

The Suns didn’t. The Rockets won in seven and the legend of Clutch City was born.

Fast forward to 1995. This time Barkley and the Suns built a 3-1 lead on the Rockets. This time Barkley and the Suns had home-court advantage.

This time I was sure I had Olajuwon backed into the corner when I approached him again about an hour before Game 5. Now the situation was reversed and the Rockets were the ones on the ropes. He saw me coming.

“Where’s your chair?” he asked with that impish grin.

I sat down and he was immediately off making twists and turns of logic and faith and resolute determination.

“Phoenix must win tonight,” he said. “If they don’t end the series, they know we will go back to Houston and win Game 6. Then we come back here and the pressure to win Game 7 will be so great. They will be tight. They will be tense. They will be afraid to fail and that often leads to failure.”

Which it did. And the Rockets went on to win their second consecutive NBA championship.

Mind games.

That’s where the Rockets are today, trailing the Trail Blazers 3-1 with their toes and their season dangling over the edge.

That’s where Olajuwon comes back in. The Hall of Famer didn’t just work with Dwight Howard on his post moves at practice Tuesday. He worked on his head.

“It is deceiving if you look at the situation as 3-1,” Olajuwon said. “I told Dwight, I told all of them, that the situation is just one game and then everything changes around.”

Three of the first four games have gone to overtime, every Blazers win by five points or less.

Let Kevin McHale and his coaching staff worry about the X’s and O’s, the juggling of the playing rotation, the tweaks to the lineup, how to corral LaMarcus Aldridge. The greatest player in franchise history says all the Rockets have to do is have the right attitude.

“This is the Rockets’ chance not just to win a game, but to dominate, to take control of every play, every possession at both ends of the court and take over the series,” Olajuwon said. “If you think about it, this should be the most free, the most easy game the Rockets have played in the playoffs. Play that way and everything changes.”

That’s how the great ones from Bill Russell to Larry Bird to Magic Johnson to Michael Jordan to Hakeem always climbed the ladder. They played to thrive, not just survive. They never felt their backs were against the wall, because they simply refused to acknowledge the very existence of the wall. The problem is never theirs, but one that belongs to the other guy.

“Portland is feeling good about themselves right now,” Olajuwon said. “They have won three times and they have a chance to close it all out in Game 5. But they better, because if you think about it, this next game is their best chance. If they lose this game, if you punish them, dominate them, you plant that doubt.”

Those Rockets of 1994 and 1995 were a veteran bunch. From Hakeem to Otis Thorpe to Vernon Maxwell to Clyde Drexler to Kenny Smith to Mario Elie, they had been around more than a few basketball blocks. By the second time around, even the youngest bricks in their wall — Robert Horry and Sam Cassell — had lived through the crucible of the first experience.

These Rockets, as far as playoff pedigrees, mostly couldn’t be more wet behind the ears if you tossed them into the ocean.

“That’s why I told Dwight that it’s up to him to set the pace,” Olajuwon said. “He and James Harden are the veterans. But he is the center. He is the one the game goes around, on offense and on defense. Set the pace. Come out strong.

“I am excited about what I see from Dwight since the beginning of the season. I watch and I see many of the things that we’ve worked on coming out in his game. I see moves. I see a jumper that could be a bigger weapon in the future. I see aggressiveness in him that is becoming more consistent.”

What he wants to see, what he needs to see now, is a team leader that doesn’t recognize the current predicament as anything but an opportunity.

Two decades later, a seat in another folding chair and another lesson, for me and for Howard.

“Like I told him,” said Olajuwon, “3-1 is just going out and having fun.”

Mind games.

Morning Shootaround — April 28



VIDEO: Daily Zap for games played April 27

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Trail Blazers trying to change their destiny | Warriors-Clippers overshadowed by controversy | Ariza delivers a championship reminder for Wizards | Pacers’ anxiety levels high and still rising?

No. 1: Trail Blazers trying to change their destiny, up 3-1 on Rockets — Fans in Portland don’t have to rub their eyes. That 3-1 lead they have over the Houston Rockets is real and well-earned. With LaMarcus Aldridge leading the way, the Trail Blazers are in the midst of changing their destiny, writes John Canzano of the Oregonian, altering the expectations of an entire fan base and lifting the spirits of an entire state in the process:

Well, Portland beat Houston on Sunday 123-120. Goes without saying, the game went overtime. It was another peptic ulcer. And what we now have is a Blazers team that stands on the cusp of breaking all that franchise futility, up three games to one against the Rockets.

“One more,” LaMarcus Aldridge cried out after. “One more.”

The big guy spoke for the state.

Aldridge scored 29 points and had 10 rebounds. Great night. But not better than the fans who stood through most of the fourth quarter and an overtime, legs shaking, arms folded, dining on their fingernails.

I looked up at the 300-level at the beginning of the overtime and saw the silhouette of a man just standing, arms raised over his head for a solid, hopeful, minute. Down on the 200 level, a woman covered her eyes while Aldridge shot free throws later in the period, missing both. Below that, in section 119, a bald woman named Julie and her husband, Bill, held each other close, watching the final seconds melt from the clock.

“Fallopian cancer,” she said to me.

“How are you doing?” I asked.

“Not well,” she said. “So this is a nice night out.”

(more…)

Rockets need to find Harden to find way

By Fran Blinebury, NBA.com


VIDEO: Blazers take commanding lead with 112-105 win in Game 2

HOUSTON — Since James Harden already has the beard, it might be time to add the big plastic nose and large glasses to complete the disguise.

Then again, he’s already doing a good job of going incognito against the Blazers.

If the Rockets are going to climb out of the 0-2 hole against the Trail Blazers, first they’ll need to put a lasso or handcuffs on LaMarcus Aldridge.

But just as important, they’ll have to find a way to get their two-time All-Star guard (and leading scorer) to put the ball into the basket.

Through the first two games of the playoffs, Harden has made just 14 of 47 shots (29.8 percent) from the field and looked very rarely and very little like the attack-the-basket, 3-point shooting scourge of the regular season.

In the Rockets’ 122-120 overtime loss in Game 1, Harden shot just 8-for-28 and followed it up in the 112-105 Game 2 loss by hitting just 6 of 19. It is his worst two-game shooting stretch of the season.

“I’m not worried about my offense,” Harden said. “It’s basketball. You’re gonna miss shots. It’s basketball, like I said.”

It is a game where sometimes shots roll off the rim that usually go in and it is a game that occasionally comes with ebbs and flows.

Nic Batum and Wesley Matthews are shadowing him whenever he touches the ball and the Blazers’ defense is sagging into the paint to cut off his drives. That’s made Harden look like anything but the cool, confident, high-scoring star he usually is in Houston’s attacking offense. He was over-dribbling. He often looked unsure whether to pull up for a jumper or to make his way toward the hoop.

“I don’t know how much is us and how much is him missing shots,” said Matthews. “But we’ll take it either way. I don’t really care.”

The Rockets have to care if they’re going to resuscitate their suddenly flagging hopes in the next two games in Portland. Because even with Dwight Howard rumbling to 25 of his 32 points in the first half of Game 2 by dominating around the basket, Houston’s offense needs Harden to present more of a problem for the Blazers. He needs to be forcing the pace in the open court, taking advantage of his speed and innate ability to absorb contact and finish plays.


VIDEO: James Harden talks after the Rockets’ Game 2 loss

Harden averaged 9.1 free throws per game during the regular season, but got to the line twice in Game 2.

Of course, the trouble could be the tendency of defenses to tighten down and generally lock up in the playoffs.

The most troubling concern for the Rockets is that it could be a trend more than just a blip. In the last three playoff series in which Harden has played, he shot 18-for-47 (38.2 percent) against Miami in the 2012 Finals, 45-for-115 (39.1 percent) a year ago in the first round against Oklahoma City and now, this.

For the most part, Harden didn’t want to talk about his own troubles, preferring to change the topic time and again to the Rockets’ own defense.

“When shots are not falling, it’s tough,” Harden said when pressed. “They’re running their offense. They’re milking the clock and we gotta go back down and go against their set defense.

“Like I said, they’re a very long team. They’re a very good defensive team. But for the most part, we just gotta get stops.”

Yet they still have to get their leading scorer to put the ball into the basket with some level of real proficiency.

“We don’t have our same flow, our same mojo that we had, throughout the season,” he said. “We don’t have our same swag where we go out there and just play and have fun with. So we gotta get that back. We got to get our own swag back.”

Starting with their top gun.

Bad call admission by the league doesn’t make Rockets feel better

By Fran Blinebury, NBA.com

HOUSTON — It was a day late when the Rockets got their apology of sorts with the NBA’s admission that officials were incorrect in calling a foul on Dwight Howard with 10.8 seconds left in overtime of Game 1. In fact, the foul should have been called on the Blazers’ Joel Freeland and Howard sent to the line for two free throws.

Of course, that an $5 will get the Rockets a venti coffee at Starbucks.

“I guess we need to go play the 10 seconds back,” Howard said with a grin following Tuesday’s practice. “We can’t do nothing about it now. It doesn’t matter. We just got to win Game 2.”

Teammate Chandler Parsons nodded his head.

“It’s obvious,” he said. “But it doesn’t do anything for us now that they’ve said that. At least they’ve owned up to it. It still doesn’t change the fact that we lost the game or are down 0-1.

“I don’t care either way. It almost makes me more mad they announced it knowing that it was wrong. One call, one play, it doesn’t determine the outcome of the game. We got to just play better and not let it get to that point.”