There are a few things you come to realize watching Playoff basketball live. One is that Craig Sager’s outfits are just as ugly in person, and Rudy Fernandez looks like Billy from the movie Gremlins. Aside from that, it’s clear these teams are nearly perfect contrasts when studying their peaks during a game. Houston gets out to big leads but can’t keep their foot on the pedal. Portland is the most efficient 4th quarter team in the League. So as I watched the Rockets let another big lead slip in the 3rd, it came time to accept an inconvenient (for the Rockets, at least) truth: No lead is safe with Houston.
Game 4 brought all the elements of a Hollywood style remake with Aaron Brooks missing free throws, Nate McMillan once again not having any timeouts left when the Blazers needed them, and Brandon Roy holding the ball in his hands a la November 6, 2008 with a chance to crush the Rockets. This time the Rockets did some re-writes to the script as Chuck Hayes took a charge.
Scola was blown away by Hayes’ defense. “Amazing. His play was amazing but it’s not only that. Everybody was ready. Everybody came in played well. Kyle [Lowry] was great. Carl [Landry] was sitting for a long time, then he came in and got two rebounds and a shot. That’s what makes the difference for this team.”
As we watched Yao goofing off with members of the press courtside, hitting one-handed threes from 26 feet out, you got the sense that Yao was aware but above the stakes of the game. He finally had success that had eluded him since Game 1, and for the fourth-straight game the Rockets got a big lead early and outrebounded the Blazers, who topped the League in board crashing during the regular season.
Battier said their pre-series preparation was paying off, explaining, “That was number one on our list of things to to do coming into this series. They have so many long guys out there. Their wings are really elite rebounders as well. So we have focused on getting to the boards and limiting them to one shot.”
It’s a concept Portland should subscribe to. The Blazers’ inability to stop Houston from getting second chance shots in the 4th cost them the game. If you let your opponent get 10 offensive boards in the 4th, you’re done for.
When Yao quits basketball, he might look into cashing in on his own psychic hotline. We caught up with him before the game and asked if he was frustrated by the fronting defense the Blazers had employed this series.
“When they start fronting me, we have everyone else stepping up to score,” said Ming. “The second game we had Ron and Scola, third game we has Shane Battier, Scola and Von Wafer so it’s not really a problem with me.”
Lo and behold, the four big scorers aside from Yao in Game 4 were Battier, Scola and Wafer. Finally, Yao has multiple players he can kick the ball out to.
The center tandem of Joel Przybilla and Greg Oden got in foul trouble early. With Przybilla and Oden out of the game. the Rockets played unselfishly, and didn’t settle for the 3. John Wooden would have been proud of Houston’s play in the 1st.
Oden’s foul trouble was unfortunate but not unexpected, though the humble and soft-spoken Oden said before the game, “I am moving my feet better and am better at fronting him.”
Travis Outlaw had been the most surprising disappointment before Game 4, but you knew he was going to go off eventually. Game 4 was that time. The Blazers’ big bench scorer put up 14 points, but couldn’t hit a last-second shot to win the game.
“I’m kind of like the kid in a grocery store that puts the toy in the basket, then you get up to the register and your mom takes it away,” said Outlaw.
Roy talked about Outlaw’s reaction to the shot, saying “He’s taking it pretty tough. Obviously he is a big part of what we do. Travis is going to dominate the Playoffs someday. I just think it’s a new experience for him.”
Drawing up the last shot for Outlaw came as a bit of a shock, but Roy was okay with the decision.
“That’s the play he drew up,” Roy said. “Whatever play Coach calls, we got with it, whether it’s me , Rudy, or him. We felt like Travis may have had the advantage on the switch.”
The Blazers came back, as their team DNA inspires them to do, and stayed alive in spite of their inability to hit shots because of Roy’s continued aggressiveness. It seemed like he drew a foul every time he went into the lane. If Roy wants an album selection for his iPod, he should choose Tupac’s “All Eyez On Me.” In fact, he was the only Blazer to get to the line before the half, going 6-6 at the charity stripe and 13-13 for the game. Without Roy, you have to wonder how good the Blazers would be. He’s a future MVP contender, no question.
“I wasn’t trying to take the game over, but I was trying to be aggressive and make sure they didn’t make any big runs and put it away,” said Roy. “I had to be aggressive and make plays, not necessarily scoring but to get my teammates involved.”
Artest, Wafer and Battier should be called The Big Government the way they bailed out H-Town in Game 4. Battier hit three huge threes as the momentum shifted back and forth, continuing to rise to the occasion.
“I was in the right place at the right time. The first three was on an offensive rebound or a broken play. My man, Brandon, left me and I was wide open, so I took it. The ball felt good when it left my hand. The next three was a corner three. The ball got swung. I thought I had Luis open for a moment, then I saw Steve Blake running out on me. The last one was was a temperature check,” Battier laughed.
Artest, in spite of his poor shot percentage, somewhat remedied the bad shots from outside that he is prone to taking, making the extra pass and getting Houston open looks from the baseline. Artest started the 3rd well and was rewarded for his drives with two layups. Then the shots started rimming out and Ron missed his next 3 in a row. After watching Game 2, you knew this was a bad omen. That’s when Roy and Aldridge started to take over, giving the Blazers the lead.
Aaron Brooks looked out of whack tonight but Kyle Lowry came in to save the day with tenacity. Both need some help hitting free throws at the end of the game. They had chances to ice the game, but couldn’t do it. Ironically Lowry’s last miss helped win the game, forcing the Blazers to get a rebound and shoot from past half court.
After the game, Yao and Battier were in good spirits, as Yao clowned on Battier for the candy-striped pants he was rocking, prompting a playful rebuttal, “Yao has a lot to learn when it comes to style and class. I need to teach that.” However, when the talk turned to their 3-1 lead, Yao was candid and sobered by the Rockets’ recent Playoff history .
Asked if he was ready to break through to the second round, Yao replied, “We still have one more. We’ve been in this situation before whether it is up 2-0 or ahead. My thought is that before that game is knocked down, the game is still 0-0.”
The 0-0 mentality is running throughout the Rockets’ locker room, as Scola echoed Yao’s sentiment, saying, “We’re where we want to be, but they’re a great team. It’s not over. They can win anywhere. We wanted win home court and win two here, but there’s still work to do.”
The Rockets have to feel confident headed to Portland, but they can’t afford to let the Blazers win the next one. If they do, the pressure starts to shift their way. Even down 3-1, it sounds like they believe they can make a miraculous comeback.
“We’re a young team. We think anything is possible,” said Outlaw.
It’s now up to Houston to do what many thought was impossible after Tracy McGrady went out for the season, breaking through the first round wall.