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.
Mar 29, 2015, 2:00 PM EDT
This likely means the end of the Nate Robinson era.
Mar 29, 2015, 12:30 PM EDT
Most expect another lockout following the 2016-17 season.
Mar 29, 2015, 11:00 AM EDT
Great execution by the Blazers.
Mar 29, 2015, 9:30 AM EDT
Kanter found a way to motivate the Jazz in the dog days of the season, and the Thunder lost in part because of it.
Mar 29, 2015, 8:00 AM EDT
“You don’t have to be best friends to come out here and work together.”
Mar 29, 2015, 12:26 AM EDT
The Golden State Warriors are the team to beat out West.
Enes Kanter rips Jazz, calls his time there a ‘three-and-a-half-year frustration'; gets booed by fans
Mar 28, 2015, 11:00 PM EDT
Kanter was traded to the Thunder midseason.
Mar 28, 2015, 9:30 PM EDT
MJ’s still got it.
Lakers coach Byron Scott says opposing players have told him during games they’d ‘love to be in L.A. next year’
Mar 28, 2015, 8:00 PM EDT
Big, if true.
Mar 28, 2015, 6:30 PM EDT
Legislation was signed into law in Indiana last week, and has been criticized as one that could legalize discrimination.
Mar 28, 2015, 5:00 PM EDT
Hornets, still fighting for a playoff spot, catch a break.
Mar 28, 2015, 3:30 PM EDT
Van Gundy coached five seasons in Orlando, but was fired after the way the Dwight Howard debacle played out.
Mar 28, 2015, 2:00 PM EDT
Kerr was joking, and making light of a mini-controversy that occurred recently with the Cavaliers.
Mar 28, 2015, 12:30 PM EDT
Clark played key bench minutes the same day he was signed.
Mar 28, 2015, 11:00 AM EDT
Cuban went off after the Mavericks were blown out by the Spurs.
Mar 28, 2015, 9:45 AM EDT
Warriors keep rolling, while the Grizzlies are starting to feel like a first round loss.
Mar 28, 2015, 8:30 AM EDT
Highlight-reel play came near the end of a loss to the Nets.
Mar 27, 2015, 11:44 PM EDT
LeBron refused to be dismissive of a seemingly harmless regular season loss.
Mar 27, 2015, 10:30 PM EDT
O’Neal made the remarks while being inducted into the Orlando Magic Hall of Fame.
Mar 27, 2015, 9:30 PM EDT
The injuries continue to pile up for the Rockets.
- NBA players’ union head believes new labor deal can be reached without a work stoppage 1
- Kendrick Perkins says you’re blowing the LeBron James/Kevin Love thing way out of proportion 13
- Mark Cuban rips officials, NBA: ‘It’s criminal’ how Monta Ellis doesn’t get calls 22
- Shaquille O’Neal says he regrets leaving Magic for Lakers 42
- Cavaliers coach David Blatt: ‘LeBron James is our MVP’ 22
- No Durant, what does that mean for Thunder in these playoffs? Trouble. 15
- Kevin Durant to have third foot surgery; is done for season, playoffs 39
- Goran Dragic leading feisty Heat’s playoff push 29