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.
Aug 29, 2014, 12:01 AM EDT
Stauskas is thrilled to have finally made it to the NBA.
Aug 28, 2014, 10:29 PM EDT
Wade and Bosh show they can get the job done now that LeBron has moved on.
Aug 28, 2014, 8:58 PM EDT
Report surfaced a few days ago saying the two teams were in discussion.
Aug 28, 2014, 7:30 PM EDT
Highest Court in the Land
Aug 28, 2014, 6:30 PM EDT
I doubt that’s what he meant
Aug 28, 2014, 5:35 PM EDT
Could Trail Blazers guard replace Derrick Rose in World Cup?
Aug 28, 2014, 4:40 PM EDT
See Pau Gasol, Ricky Rubio, Jose Calderon and Serge Ibaka dance
Aug 28, 2014, 3:45 PM EDT
Black, who played at Kansas and Memphis, could be headed to Houston’s D-League affiliate
Aug 28, 2014, 2:50 PM EDT
Dan Gilbert, after throwing money at Kentucky coach, settled for management that landed LeBron James and Kevin Love this offseason
Aug 28, 2014, 1:55 PM EDT
Judy Seto doesn’t even bother asking Kobe to rate his pain, because the question is pointless
Aug 28, 2014, 12:59 PM EDT
Pop being Pop.
Aug 28, 2014, 12:20 PM EDT
Jazz guard will play behind Matthew Dellavedova and Ryan Broekhoff
Aug 28, 2014, 11:44 AM EDT
Cousins was long safe and part of the USA rotation.
Aug 28, 2014, 11:05 AM EDT
If you’re trying to age your game gracefully, Pierce is a great model.
Aug 28, 2014, 10:33 AM EDT
76ers point guard underwent shoulder surgery in spring
Aug 28, 2014, 9:52 AM EDT
Rose will probably have to prove it while coming off the bench behind Kyrie Irving in World Cup
Aug 28, 2014, 9:15 AM EDT
Tony Wroten is putting on a show.
Aug 28, 2014, 8:45 AM EDT
Doesn’t matter who didn’t show up, the guys that did make Team USA one of two teams with a legit shot at gold.
Aug 28, 2014, 8:00 AM EDT
For a third point guard signed for the league minimum, this is a nice pickup. Not thrilling, but nice.
Aug 28, 2014, 12:20 AM EDT
Dexter Pittman, Greg Stiemsma, Daniel Orton, Bobby Brown, Toney Douglas, Ben Hansbrough and Malcolm Lee try out
- Coach K had DeMarcus Cousins as USA’s backup big long before final cuts 5
- World Cup preview: No Durant, no problem USA still one of two teams with legit shot to win gold 6
- Cavaliers sold Kyrie Irving on contract extension with LeBron James-Kevin Love plan 34
- Kevin Love says Timberwolves owner should focus on his own team following trade to Cavaliers 35
- Iman Shumpert excited to play in triangle offense because he won’t just have to stand in the corner 9
- Timberwolves owner: Kevin Love might regret trade because he’ll be third banana with Cavaliers 48
- Anthony Davis and Kenneth Faried lead Team USA in final World Cup tune-up 20
- Thunder trade Hasheem Thabeet to 76ers 37