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Damian Lillard, from stopped to surging, takes Portland back toward top

May 3, 2014, 3:06 AM EDT

Damian Lillard, prior to an inbound with 0.9 seconds left and the Trail Blazers down two points in a closeout playoff game, stood almost cryptically still.

The Trail Blazers weren’t supposed to be here. They went 33-49 last season, and though they had a solid young core, few thought they could take a major step in only a year. We predicted they’d go .500 and miss the playoffs. An ESPN panel had them 10th in the Western Conference with 39 wins. Yahoo Sports also gave them 39 wins, and Sports Illustrated pegged them 11th in the conference.

Without warning, Lillard took off like a bat out of hell.

The Trail Blazers point guard raced by defenders, received the inbound pass and made a jaw-dropping, buzzer-beating, series-ending, city-inspiring, legacy-defining 3-pointer to give Portland its first playoff win 14 years.

The final score Friday was Trail Blazers 99, Rockets 98 – and the tension of a tight game that was never separated by more than four points for the excruciating final 17 minutes only fueled the celebration afterward.

Lillard ran around a suddenly crowded court and popped his jersey – a gesture The New York Times once said would never reach the NBA because it put too emphasis on the team over the individual. Then, the second-year point guard grabbed the microphone and shouted “Rip Citaaaaayyyyy!!!”

Party on, Portland.

The Trail Blazers and their fans have been through so much – consecutive sweeps by the Lakers, taking the Mavericks to Game 7 before losing, the Jail Blazers, bottoming out at 21-61, drafting Greg Oden, more early playoff exits, losing Brandon Roy, believing they could lose LaMarcus Aldridge – and Lillard’s shot released all their frustration and turned it into jubilation.

Lillard didn’t singlehandedly save the franchise, but he’s breathed life into it like nobody since Roy. First Lillard won Rookie of the Year, and now this. Friday, he finished with 25 points on 8-of-14 shooting, including 6-of-10 on 3-pointers. He’s quickly earned a place in any discussion about the NBA’s most-clutch players.

Aldridge (30 points and 13 rebounds) was nearly as good, but Houston’s two stars nearly outdid Portland’s and sent this series to a Game 7.

James Harden (34 points on 15 shots) lifted the Rockets late, and Dwight Howard (26 points and 11 rebounds) carried them late. Howard scored 13 straight Houston points, accounting for all the team’s scoring in the final 8:50, until Chandler Parsons made a putback that put the Rockets up two with 0.9 seconds remaining.

Before the final inbound, Parsons, perhaps expecting to switch back on a screen, switched with Patrick Beverley (Houston’s top perimeter defender) onto Lillard. Then, Lillard’s sudden burst toward an inbounding Batum created an easy pass and open, though long, shot.

The basket that sent Portland into delirium also began an offseason of scrutiny for the Rockets.

They signed Howard last summer, ratcheting up expectations to championship level. They have two legitimate stars and arguably the NBA’s best role players. Nothing seemed out of reach.

But a reasonable analysis suggests they needed a year for their new players to jell and another offseason to re-stock the roster after trimming the requisite salary to sign Howard. After all, not even LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh won a title their first season with the Heat.

Don’t count on reasonable, though. Howard is the NBA’s easiest scapegoat, and people will line up to criticize him.

Patience is not a virtue in this league. Not in Houston and not in Portland.

No team had gone longer since its last playoff-series win that the Trail Blazers, and the wait was excruciating. And also worth it.

It was only a matter of time until Lillard and his Trail Blazers escaped their malaise, took off and brought Portland to its feet once again.

  1. antistratfordian - May 3, 2014 at 3:44 AM

    Zero the Hero

  2. 1harrypairatesties - May 3, 2014 at 3:45 AM

    Great game. Rockets players were shocked & so were a couple of Trailblazers. Glad I watched it till’ the end.

  3. shen90 - May 3, 2014 at 4:07 AM

    Had not won since Dunleavy said going into 4th quarter with like a 16 point lead “we couldn’t loose now if we tried” That dill hole cursed us but now it’s over!

  4. eugenesaxe1 - May 3, 2014 at 5:16 AM

    “Howard is the NBA’s easiest scapegoat, and people will line up to criticize him.”

    I don’t like him, but he’s not the reason their season’s over. It took Harden six games to realize the series had started.

    • rhetoric1 - May 3, 2014 at 9:01 AM

      Absolutely agree with this comment. Not a Rockets fan or Howard apologist, but from an outsider looking in, Harden has been abysmal since that finals match against the Heat.

    • nykfanwakemeupin2015 - May 3, 2014 at 11:00 AM

      James Hardens game is not for playoff basketball. Him and Amare are easily the worst defenders in the league but I think Harden may have him.

    • asimonetti88 - May 3, 2014 at 2:48 PM

      0:17

      Dwight Howard, smiling like always

      • casualcommenter - May 3, 2014 at 5:27 PM

        Howard took less money to help form a better and more complete team in Houston, much like LeBron and Wade and Bosh did in 2010, and much as Tim Duncan did in his most recent deal with the Spurs.

        Still waiting for Kobe to do that for once.

      • asimonetti88 - May 3, 2014 at 5:33 PM

        Dwight Howard’s better and more complete team lost in the first round.

    • casualcommenter - May 3, 2014 at 5:25 PM

      Agreed.

      Credit to the Trailblazers who won this series by consistently outexecuting the Rockets late in games. Teams win and lose series, not individual players, but if you were to look for a superstar scapegoat, the most fair target is Harden.

      His blatant disregard for playing defense is annoying even when he’s playing well on offense, but given that he played poorly on offense more often than not in this series, his inconsistent at best defense was killer.

      He needs to work on both his conditioning and his commitment on defense this offseason if the Rockets hope to advance further in the future in the ultracompetitive Western Conference.

  5. omniusprime - May 3, 2014 at 8:39 AM

    Dwight Coward proves why he’s The Ultimate LOSER! So glad that this worthless piece of trash only disgraced the Laker bench for a season.

    Ha Ha Houston you got a problem! You got stuck with the most worthless, lazy goof off in pro sports. You know why coward smiles so much? Because he knows he’s ripping off the club he plays for because he knows he’ll never be committed to winning a championship, just collecting big bucks for being a lazy jerk.

    Good Riddance Coward!

  6. jj871 - May 3, 2014 at 8:59 AM

    Howard had a great series. You can’t put the blame on him.

    Harden on the other hand….
    Houston will not win in the playoffs as long as Harden is one of the worst defenders in the NBA. This is a 2 way game.

  7. philyeagles5 - May 3, 2014 at 10:38 AM

    I don’t get why them being good is such a surprise to everyone. They have a good team.

  8. remyje - May 3, 2014 at 11:01 AM

    People start defending players only because they get bashed so much…… Dwight Howard is soft and doesn’t dominate like he should…. He hasn’t gotten any better since he came into the league….. He will always be an average player in the NBA because the league lacks dominate centers…

  9. kgsmith - May 3, 2014 at 11:01 AM

    GO BLAZERS!! Harden and Howard are two of the biggest, overhyped cry babies in the NBA. constant complaining to the refs, and flopping like crazy.. Man up, grow a pair and play the game!! These guys should be forced to give some of that money back to Houston..

  10. jimeejohnson - May 3, 2014 at 12:02 PM

    NY Times; suck it. WEST OF I-5!

  11. m4a188 - May 3, 2014 at 1:52 PM

    What a Stud.

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