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.
Oct 25, 2014, 12:30 PM EDT
No surprise, and Lakers fans feel the same way.
Oct 25, 2014, 11:00 AM EDT
It might be because short of an insane offer of a max deal, Thompson would rather take his chances as a restricted free agent next summer.
Oct 25, 2014, 9:30 AM EDT
Nice job of McCallum to stay active on a play where he had already missed a shot.
Oct 25, 2014, 8:00 AM EDT
Will Thomas make Kings regret choosing Darren Collison over him?
Oct 25, 2014, 12:01 AM EDT
Thunder will be very short-handed the first month of the regular season.
Oct 24, 2014, 11:00 PM EDT
It’s far from guaranteed that they will use it.
Oct 24, 2014, 10:00 PM EDT
And it was probably the smartest possible play
Oct 24, 2014, 9:00 PM EDT
76ers forwent any guaranteed salary to hit free agency sooner
Oct 24, 2014, 8:20 PM EDT
Bucks point guard Nate Wolters makes heads-up play
Oct 24, 2014, 7:31 PM EDT
Can’t say I ever pictured that.
Oct 24, 2014, 6:40 PM EDT
This is a minor trade, even in Sam Hinkie’s world.
Oct 24, 2014, 5:31 PM EDT
Clippers owner affirms reputation
Byron Scott says Lakers may need to trade for point guard. For now, Ronnie Price starts, Jeremy Lin off bench.
Oct 24, 2014, 4:41 PM EDT
Expect the Lakers to try and trade for a point guard… no, not Rajon Rondo.
Oct 24, 2014, 3:50 PM EDT
Nash was everything we want as a fan in an NBA player.
Report: Tobias Harris won’t sign contract extension, would get Nike bonus by playing in New York, Chicago or Los Angeles
Oct 24, 2014, 3:20 PM EDT
Could forward leave the Magic in 2016?
Oct 24, 2014, 2:50 PM EDT
The NBA is full of talent, personality and suspense. During the offseason, It’s easy to forget how wonderful the league can be. So, I’ve assembled 67 Reasons I’m Excited For Next Season (67RIEFNS). They’ll be presented in no particular order. JaVale McGee played just five games last year after injuring his leg. How did we…
Oct 24, 2014, 2:18 PM EDT
Varejao the better choice, but Cleveland should be careful here
Oct 24, 2014, 1:44 PM EDT
Phil Jackson says the triangle is not rocket science.
Oct 24, 2014, 1:07 PM EDT
Pacers center filling huge role after last season’s great start, big collapse
Oct 24, 2014, 12:33 PM EDT
Childress, who played for Pelicans last season, now playing (dirty) in Australia
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