Aldridge, Lillard spectacular as Blazers draw first playoff blood
HOUSTON -- LaMarcus Aldridge was franchise-record brilliant. Damian Lillard's first playoff performance was a Rembrandt. Wesley Matthews helped make life miserable for James Harden.
They were the principals in the Trail Blazers' spine-tingling 122-120 overtime victory over Houston Sunday night at Toyota Center to draw first blood in their best-of-seven first series.
The Blazers showed grit and resilience through three hours, 21 minutes of hoop warfare in the final of eight first-round NBA playoff games over two days.
Those who stayed up to watch on TNT nationwide as No. 5 knocked off No. 4 in the West weren't disappointed.
"It was playoff basketball, (with) flagrant fouls, emotions running high," Portland coach Terry Stotts said. "It was a great atmosphere. The crowd was into it. Both teams were into it."
Never-say-die is trite, but it was true of the Blazers, who trailed by 13 points early in the third quarter, by 11 with 4 1/2 minutes to go in regulation and by six after successive three-point plays by Dwight Howard and Jeremy Lin to start overtime.
"We grinded it out at least three times," Stotts said. "I was really proud of the way we competed."
Aldridge and Lillard led the way, but the Blazers got big plays from all five starters.
"Our whole thing was, stick with it and keep playing," Lillard said. "There are going to be ups and there are going to be down, and when there are downs, you have to keep fighting. We were able to do that. We were down 11 and still had confidence. We kept saying in the huddle, 'Stay together and keep fighting.' "
Portland did it in the clutch without Aldridge and center Robin Lopez, who had fouled out and were watching from the bench as Harden's contested 12-footer bounced off iron as time expired in the extra session.
"Our team had some adversity," said Lillard, whose first run at the postseason included 31 points, nine rebounds, five assets and only one turnover in 46 golden minutes. The Rockets "played a great game. Can't take anything away from Houston. It came down to making free throws and getting stops, and we were able to get one more."
If Aldridge felt pressure to lead the Blazers to victory, he didn't show it. In one of the great performances of his eight-year career with Portland, the All-Star power forward came through with a franchise playoff-record 46 points to go with 18 rebounds before fouling out on a ticky-tack call in backcourt with 1:04 left in the extra session and the score tied at 116-116.
"That was hard," said Aldridge, who was 17 for 31 from the field, 2 for 2 from 3-point range and 10 for 13 at the line. "But I went to 'Dame' and said, 'Take over.' And he took over."
Lin scored on a driving layup to push Houston in front 118-116, but Lillard's three-point play gave Portland a 119-118 lead with 44.5 seconds to play.
Francisco Garcia and Howard each went 1 for 2 at the foul line to pull Houston back on top 120-119, but Lillard was fouled again and calmly sank a pair to make it 121-120 with 29.5 seconds left.
After a Harden miss at the other end, Joel Freeland -- who had entered the game for the first time with 47 seconds left in overtime -- made 1 of 2 at the line to hike the margin to 122-120 with 10.8 seconds to go.
That set the stage for Harden's unsuccessful attempt to send the game into a second OT and a jubilant celebration by the visitors.
After Aldridge fouled out, Lillard said, "We had to own up to that, to have L.A.'s back and come through for him. Our team found a way to get it done after."
The Rockets tried several tactics in defending Aldridge. Most of the time, they single-covered him with second-year pro Terrence Jones, who was game but not big or savvy enough to handle his more seasoned foe. Aldridge scored on drives, on putbacks and his patented fadeaway jumper from the left block, and the Rockets were wont to slow him down.
"He had seven offensive rebounds, he got to the line 13 times, he made 17 shots, and a lot of them were to the middle," Houston coach Kevin McHale said. "We didn't do a very good job on him at all. He got free. He has been a handful for us all year long.
"We're going to have to come up with a couple of new ways to try to keep the ball out of his hands. We just didn't have any answers for him."
Said Lillard: "I don't think I've ever seen L.A. like that, how animated he was about calls. I saw how bad he want to win the game. When your best player and leader is playing like that, it fires you up."
Stotts said Aldridge "has been ready for this moment."
"We rode him," the second-year Portland mentor said. "He was very efficient on his post-ups. When (the Rockets) played their small lineup, he took advantage of the matchups he had."
Aldridge had gone 3 for 15 from 3-point range during the regular season.
"His two 3's were big for us tonight," Stotts said. "We saved that for the playoffs. It was a good thing they went in."
Aldridge would say only that Sunday's performance was "up there on my list of big games."
"It was just one of those nights," he said. "I got into a good rhythm and started to feel good down low, and my teammates did a good job of trying to find me down low."
Lillard scored 16 of his points in the last five minutes of the fourth quarter and the overtime session.
"Damian rises to the occasion," Stotts said. "All those people who were wanting to know if he was ready for the playoffs, I think he answered that question. it was a big-time performance."
There was enough drama packed into Game 1 to remind Portland general manager Neil Olshey of his days in Hollywood acting in soap operas.
It was a physical battle in the trenches, both teams claiming they were hosed by the officials at times. Howard, Houston guard Patrick Beverley and Lopez were assessed technical fouls and Portland's Mo Williams a flagrant foul as intensity ranged from high to off the charts.
Houston's stars, Harden and Howard, each finished with 27 points, but neither was on the mark. Harden went 8 for 28 from the field and 3 for 14 from 3-point range. Howard was 9 for 21 from the field and 9 for 17 from the foul line, suffering the indignity of three "Hack-a-Howard" fouls in the fourth quarter that forced McHale to remove him from the game for a short spell. At one point late in the first half, Houston's H&H boys were a combined 2 for 13 from the field.
The Blazers led 27-20 after one quarter, but Houston outscored them 24-6 over the first seven minutes of the second quarter to go in front 44-33. The Rockets led 49-48 at the half but opened the third period with a 15-3 tear to seize a 64-51 advantage.
Houston again appeared to have things in hand with a 98-87 edge with 4:30 to play. Aldridge and Lillard sparked an 11-0 run and combined for all of Portland's 18 points the rest of the quarter, including an Aldridge tip-in of a Matthews miss from 3-point range with 2.9 seconds left in regulation to force overtime.
The Rockets charged into the extra session with back-to-back three-point plays by Howard and Lin for a 112-106 lead, but Portland answered with 3-point shots by Aldridge and Batum, and the race to the finish was on.
"It hurts," McHale lamented. "We put ourselves in position to win that game, and we didn't do it. We missed some free throws down the stretch. We had a couple of plays we'd love to have over. But they made the plays they had to make. They're up 1-0. It's a long series."
At least McHale and the Rockets hope it will be as they look ahead to Wednesday night's second game of the series at the Toyota Center.
"It was our goal to try to win this first one and set the tone for the series," Aldridge said. "We did it, but we're not satisfied. We know (Game 2) is not going to be easy. We have to keep working."
"We had to win at least one here, so we've done that, but we're not by any means satisfied," reiterated Stotts. "We have a lot of work cut out for us."
NOTES: Portland's previous franchise playoff high was 45 points by Bonzi Wells against Dallas in 2003. Six Blazers have now scored 40 or more in the postseason, including Clyde Drexler (42 in 1992), Brandon Roy (42 in 2009), Terry Porter (41 in 1992) and Mychal Thompson (40 in 1981). The Blazers were 1 for 12 from 3-point range in the first half, 8 for 15 from beyond the arc after intermission. Matthews scored 16 points but made only 6 of 16 shots, including 1 for 7 from the 3-point line. Batum had 14 points on 6-for-10 shooting to go with nine rebounds and three assists. Beverley limped off the court after fouling out with 44.5 seconds left in overtime, apparently reinjuring the knee he hurt late in the regular season. "We'll find out more (Monday)," McHale said. Matthews went right at Harden on several early possessions, scoring twice on post-ups early. "We wanted to make him work at both ends," Stotts said. "No question, making him expend some energy at the defensive end was a priority." Houston small forward Chandler Parsons was on fire early, scoring 12 of his 24 points in the first quarter.
Matthews, with help from Nicolas Batum, defended Harden, who had averaged 30.3 points and shot superbly in four regular-season contests against Portland. Harden eventually got his points but never really found his shooting stroke. "I've got to play better," he said. "I didn't shoot the ball well. Just kind of rusty. I've got to shake it off, but it will be better in Game 2." Neither team was great from the line. Portland made 29 of 39 free throws (.744) while Houston was only 26 for 40 (.650). Houston's bench outscored its Portland counterparts 21-7. Lin, the Rockets' backup point guard, had an outstanding game with 14 points, six rebounds and four assists. Williams, the Blazers' backup point guard, struggled all night, scoring three points on 1-for-6 shooting. The Blazer reserves combined for 2-for-14 shooting. After fouling out in overtime, Lopez was initially whistled for a second technical foul for pushing Parsons' shoulders from behind as he left the court. After video review, the officials rescinded the "T." Said Lopez: "I was just having a talk with Chandler. I asked him if that was six fouls, and I gave him a tap on the back."