Upsets filled the first games of the opening round of the NBA playoffs the past few days, so it was fitting that the final contest of the weekend included one more. In a game that ran late (particularly for those on the east coast), the Portland Trail Blazers outlasted the Houston Rockets on Sunday, 122-120 in overtime.
Fifth-seeded Portland got 46 points and 18 rebounds from star LaMarcus Aldridge, as well as 31 points from Damian Lillard, but still needed a flurry of clutch plays late to pull off the upset on the road.
Trailing by 11 with four minutes to play, the game already seemed out of reach for Portland. The Trail Blazers, however, went on a key 11-0 run to tie the game at 98-98. That was on the backs of their stars Aldridge and Lillard, who were the only Portland players to score over the final eight minutes of regulation. The play of the two stars in that sequence wasn’t the only thing that helped, though. Portland went to the oft-employed Hack-a-Howard strategy, and the big man came up empty in four shots at the free throw line in that 11-0 run, helping the rally along.
After a three-pointer by Lillard again tied the game at 101, Rockets star James Harden drew a foul and hit two free throws, giving Houston a late two-point lead. With the clock winding down, and after big misses by Wes Matthews and Lillard, Aldridge hauled in the biggest offensive rebound of the night and his putback with two seconds left sent the game into overtime.
For the second time in the night, the game appeared out of reach as Houston scored six quick points in overtime. The Trail Blazers again fought back to tie things up, and even took the lead after a pair of Matthews free throws. As the teams continued trading free throws down the stretch, Lillard hit a pair with 17 seconds left to put Portland up by one. With only ten seconds left and clinging to a 121-120 lead, Portland was then the beneficiary of a poor officiating call. Dwight Howard was whistled for a foul when he and Joel Freeland became tangled up. Replays were conclusive in proving that it was in fact the Blazers’ Joel Freeland who was blatantly holding him.
Instead of getting to the free throw line or having the ball back to potentially take the lead, Houston watched Freeland make a free throw and extend Portland’s lead to two points. A missed shot by Harden at the buzzer sealed the win.
Seeing a close game end on a bad whistle is frustrating, but when it happens in the playoffs, it’s borderline inexcusable. In Portland’s defense, though, the team also had some questionable calls go against them and made shots down the stretch when they needed them. In addition, when you consider that Houston blew an 11-point lead in regulation and a six-point lead in the extra session (and was playing at home, no less), they really have no one to blame here but themselves. The call against Howard was an egregious one, but was hardly the only reason the Rockets failed to close the deal and win the game. Portland’s clutch plays earned them the right to take a 1-0 lead in the series.
Game 2 will be on Wednesday at 9:30 in Houston before the series shifts to Portland.