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  • 16 Sep 2014

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Lillard walk on water? Of course he can

by: COURTESY OF JOHN LARIVIERE - Damian Lillard launches his open 3-pointer in the final series to beat the Houton Rockets 99-98 Friday night at Moda Center and give the Trail Blazers a 4-2 series win.Damian Lillard may not walk on water, but he could probably skip across the Willamette River about now.

And there would be thousands upon thousands of Portlanders following him into the wet stuff, drowning in their delirium of Blazermania.

At least that's the suspicion after Lillard knocked down the biggest buzzer-beater in franchise history Friday night at the Moda Center.

Portland's "Mr. Clutch" swished a 3-pointer as time expired to give the Trail Blazers a 99-98 victory over Houston, touching off a celebration the likes of which the city hasn't seen for quite some time.

Lillard's cold-blooded gunnery finished off the Rockets in six games and sends Portland into the Western Conference semifinals against either San Antonio or Dallas. The Spurs and Mavericks play Game 7 of their first-round series on Sunday.

"It was a hell of a win," coach Terry Stotts said after the Blazers won its first playoff series since 2000, ending the longest drought in the NBA's Western Conference. "I don't know that it could have been any more dramatic."

In only his second NBA season, Lillard has developed a reputation as an assassin, with several game-winning baskets to his credit.

"He lives for those moments," Stotts said.

But Lillard outdid himself Friday night with the historic bomb that saved the Blazers from having to win a Game 7 on the road. It was the first buzzer-beater to win a playoff series since Utah's John Stockton did it against Houston in 1997.

"That's definitely the biggest shot of my life -- so far," Lillard said.

The Blazers were on the brink of defeat after Chandler Parsons' reverse putback gave Houston a 98-96 lead with .9 of a second on the clock.

"I think I can speak for the entire team," Lillard said. "Everybody was like, 'Man, we have to go back to Houston.' "

The Blazers called timeout and huddled. Stotts drew up a play and, figuratively at least, said a prayer.

"I just wanted to get a shot," he said.

Said Lillard: "If (the in-bounds pass) wasn't coming to me, it was going to (LaMarcus Aldridge) on a lob on the back side."

Portland got a break when Houston coach Kevin McHale chose to have Parsons, a 6-9 small forward, defend the 6-3 Lillard. The next break came when Parsons set up between Lillard -- standing on the far side from Nicolas Batum, the inbound passer -- and the basket.

Lillard broke around a screen and, said Stotts, "came wide open."

"I just wanted to flash to the ball," Lillard said. "I got a pretty good look. I was able to break free and got my feet squared up, and it felt real good leaving my hands. Once I saw it on line, I said, 'That's got a chance.' "

The shot went splat as the clock expired.

"It looked good when it left (his hands)," Stotts said. "It was remarkable. It was a remarkable shot."

And suddenly, the Moda Center was Mardi Gras. People were hugging strangers in the aisles. On the court, Aldridge had made a beeline for the man of the hour.

"I didn't let him go for about three minutes," Aldridge said, smiling.

Lillard circled the court, gesturing to the crowd, slapping five with fans as he made his way around the floor.

"The crowd was so into the game," he said. "Our whole team really wanted to get it done for them. Not only for ourselves, our group in the locker room, but for the crowd. They were with us this whole series 100 percent. They deserved to be rewarded.

"Us sticking with the court and rallying and chanting with the crowd for a while, that's what Portland's has been looking for for a long time. I'm excited to be with this group of guys and finally get it done."

The Rockets, meanwhile, watched for awhile in stunned silence. Then they headed for the locker room.

"It hurts," Houston's Dwight Howard said. "When you put everything you got on the floor and somebody hits you with a dagger like that, it's a tough pill to swallow."

McHale -- who may be out of a job after Houston's first-round elimination -- had no explanation for the Rockets' defensive failures on the game's final possession.

"We didn't execute very well," McHale said. "We said, 'No 3's.' (Lillard) just took off running and got separation on the first step, and Chandler just never caught up. (Lillard) made a hell of a shot.

"We had a great opportunity to bring it back to Houston. That was our goal. We didn't get it done."

When a reporter asked how the mood was in the Rockets' locker room, McHale winced.

"Terrible," he said. "How do you think we'd be?"

It was a night when all four of the game's stars -- Portland's Lillard and Aldridge, Houston's Howard and James Harden -- had terrific performances.

Lillard scored 25 points on only 14 shots, going 8 for 14 from the field, 6 for 10 from 3-point range and 3 for 3 from the line.

Aldridge, bouncing back from an eight-point, eight-rebound showing in Game 5, collected a team-high 30 points to go with 13 rebounds. He was particularly effective early, going for 21 points and seven rebounds in the first half.

"I was trying to take my shots, find my rhythm and get us going early," he said. "I wanted to get us off to a good start. When I put pressure on the defense, it makes everybody else's job easier."

Howard had 26 points and 11 rebounds, finishing a series in which he contributed at least 20 points and 10 boards every game.

Then there was Harden, a bust even while averaging 24.2 points in the first five games, shooting 35 percent from the field and 25 percent from 3-point range. He was sensational Friday night, scoring a game-high 34 points while shooting 9 for 15 from the field, 4 for 6 from 3-point range and 12 for 12 from the line.

In the end, it wasn't enough for the Rockets, who were in every game in the series until the final minute and still found a way to lose four of six games.

Asked by a Houston reporter if the Rockets can grow from the experience, Howard shook his head.

"We can't grow anymore," he said. "We're going home."

Then he paid homage to the victors.

"Portland came in and played with a lot of confidence," he said. The Blazers "hit some big shots. They played great defense. They were well-coached. They came out and played from the first game until tonight. They played together. Just watching their mentality on the floor, it's good. They're a seasoned team.

"I congratulate them. Since we're out, I'd love to see Damian and LaMarcus win it. I'm friends with both of them. I'd be proud of them if they could take it."

Howard sought out Lillard in the post-game madness.

"I told him, 'Great series,' " Howard said. "Proud of him. I said, 'Go win the 'ship.' "

Asked what Howard's words meant, Lillard grinned.

"I guess we won him over," he said. "We had a tough six games against them, and Dwight had a great series, but that's a sign of respect -- him respecting what we were able to get done.

"We were the underdog. Nobody gave us a chance. What we did on the floor said a lot more than anybody on the outside could say."

It's not true that nobody gave Portland a chance. The Rockets were the No. 4 seeds in the West, the Blazers No. 5, and everybody thought it would be a tight series. It was every bit of that.

The Blazers have a couple of days to let it marinate. Then it will be on to the next series against either the Spurs or Mavericks. It's been a long time coming for Aldridge, who, in his eighth season with Portland had never been on the winning side of a series until now.

"I've been here so long," he said. "This city has been waiting for this type of moments, this night, for a long time. (Fans) are probably still cheering in their cars and at their houses.

"This city love basketball. And to give them type of series and a shot to end it -- they love it. They've been behind us the whole season. They believe in us."

NOTES: Stotts, asked what he planned to do to celebrate: "Go have a beer." … Aldridge averaged 29.8 points in the series, second-highest by a Trail Blazer in history behind Clyde Drexler's 31.4-point average vs. Phoenix in 1992. ... Aldridge said Lillard's game-winning shot reminded him of the one Brandon Roy had made during the 2008-09 regular season to beat the Rockets. "Very similar," Aldridge said. "I'd put that shot and this shot together." … Aldridge, on winning a playoff series: "It feels weird, but it feels good. We've had our moments where we felt we should have made it. We've had teams that maybe should have done it in the past. It feels good to finally take that step." … Houston scored 672 points, Portland 670 in the series. "I'm just happy we were able to make that one more play to close out the series," Lillard said. … Lillard scored seven points in the final 36 seconds of the first quarter -- on a 3-point shot and a four-point play.

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