Steve Aschburner
Saturday April 25th, 2009

Five observations from three NBA playoffs games Friday evening, each scrutinized closely with the understanding that teams that win Game 3 historically go on to win 76 percent of these first-round series:

1. See the ball, shoot the ball, chase down the ball.

There was no shortage of angles, topics or second-guess aspects to Houston's 86-83 victory over Portland in Game 3 of their best-of-seven first-round series. There was the Trail Blazers' tenacious comeback from 17 points down, showing off to a national audience a resiliency they had perfected all season. After all, Portland had dug out of holes of 10 points or more to win on 18 occasions during the regular season, the most by any NBA team since 2002-03. In 13 of their games in which they trailed or were tied through three quarters, they found a way to win, more than any other club in the league. They were on the verge of it again Friday, closing to 81-80 with less than 20 seconds left and 85-83 with 2.7 seconds to go.

There were other threads in play, including the lack of timeouts left in Portland coach Nate McMillan's quiver at that point (obviously McMillan had needed them all just to get close enough to need another), and Houston's inability or reluctance to foul and yield two free throws rather than three-pointers in the final 24 seconds by LaMarcus Aldridge, Rudy Fernandez and Steve Blake. It all was rendered moot, though, when Rockets guard Aaron Brooks missed the second of his two foul shots at that 2.7-second mark, then darted inside an unprepared Portland crew for the rebound, dribbling his way to daylight and the final horn at the Toyota Center.

On a night when Brandon Roy's scoring got cut by more than half from his Game 2 showing (from 42 points down to 19), with Houston center Yao Ming shutting down offensively after one quarter (seven points early, none the rest of the way), there was something comforting about the littlest man on the court grabbing the game's biggest rebound. Luis Scola had a bigger game for the Rockets, with 19 points, nine rebounds and a key jumper with 1:03 to play. Shane Battier came up big with 16 points and a three-pointer with 4:30 left that temporarily shoved the Blazers back where Houston wanted them. But it was the little guy, Brooks, sinking three of his four free throws in the final 16.9 seconds (the whole Portland team shot only 10 in 48 minutes), that swung this one.

2. Not getting over the hump in the fourth quarter has Orlando staring at an even bigger hump now.

The record will show that the Magic lost Game 3 against Philadelphia 96-94 when Dwight Howard, the NBA's newly crowned Defensive Player of the Year, appeared to forget that Thaddeus Young was a natural left-hander and shaded to Young's right, allowing the 76ers' forward to recover the ball under the basket and slip in the game-winner with two seconds left.

But in truth, Orlando lost back in the middle of that fourth quarter when it had four chances to tie or take the lead, and the momentum, in front of the Philadelphia home crowd, yet failed. Down 88-86, Rafer Alston put up a three-point air ball that might have been partially blocked, Howard traveled before he put up a jump hook, Rashard Lewis missed twice at the rim and, next time down, Lewis got stripped by Young to set up a fast-break bucket by Louis Williams. Orlando's Courtney Lee had to force a three from deep at the shot clock and Andre Iguodala's jumper from the right wing made it 92-86 with 2:39 left.

Eventually Orlando pulled even, Howard rising to the challenge of being put on the foul line by sinking a pair of free throws with 6.9 to go (he was 12-of-14 from there on this night). Had the Magic tied or crept ahead earlier, though, the Philly crowd might have quieted down, the 76ers could have felt more pressure and Young might have pressed just a little more, rushing to erase a deficit on that final Philadelphia possession without the fallback of overtime at home.

Philadelphia's defense continued to pester Orlando, which picked up its three-point pace to 8-of-20 this time compared to 11-of-41 in Games 1 and 2, but shot 42.5 percent overall Friday. A problem Magic coach Stan Van Gundy bemoaned before Game 3 remains. "We're just having tremendous problems offensively,'' Van Gundy said. "Other than Courtney, everybody else has had a lot of problems getting the ball in the basket.''

Never mind that "other than'' stuff; Lee was 2-of-9 Friday, slipping from 24 points Wednesday to just six.

3. A big reason we might have expected LeBron James to eventually want out of Cleveland is, in fact, a 7-foot-3 reason why he's having so much fun and success there.

I'll be honest: I never figured Zydrunas Ilgauskas to be James' type of center. Too lumbering, too much of a half-court player, certainly not in sync with the Cavaliers' young superstar in style or coolness. Yet the two have developed a real friendship and bond and, even setting aside the touchie-feelies, they were a dynamite tandem against the rapidly shrinking Detroit Pistons in Cleveland's 79-68 Game 3 victory. LBJ and Z combined for 38 points and 17 rebounds, better production than the Pistons' entire starting frontcourt (20 and 20) -- not to mention one amusing, fast-break effort with the gawky Ilgauskas, er, leading the way for a couple of open-court dribbles.

"Ever since LeBron came to the team, it regenerated me,'' Ilgauskas, the Cavs' only real link to the franchise's miserable times before the 2003 draft, said recently. "It was hard to keep motivated in the losing seasons. There was a lot of frustration.''

And now? "We came in with the mind-set in October that we'd be playing in June,'' the big man said. "You have to have the mind-set that you're going to be the last man standing.''

4. You're only as good in the playoffs as your bench -- in series as well as in games.

It was a big night all around for reserves who boosted their teams to the potentially pivotal Game 3 victories. For Cleveland, it was well-traveled Joe Smith with his biggest postseason performance ever (19 points, 10 boards). The trio of Carl Landry, Von Wafer and Kyle Lowry combined for 21 points on 9-of-11 shooting in the first half for Houston, helping the Rockets to their 48-37 lead at the break before Portland's Rudy Fernandez fully heated up with five three-pointers and 17 points off the bench. And in Philadelphia, it was a similar group effort, five backups ganging up on Orlando's bench players for a 21-10 scoring edge in the two-point outcome. It was only half the points that Philadelphia got from its bench in Game 1 but twice as satisfying as what happened when the reserves scored a mere 12 in the Game 2 loss.

5. Pistons coach Michael Curry could channel Knute Rockne, Vince Lombardi, Bob Knight, John Wooden and Norman Dale, and I still wouldn't like his chances of motivating the fellas for Game 4.

The downside of savoring excellence of the sort we've seen and expect from James in the East and Kobe Bryant in the West is having to hang around for the inevitable. In the Cavs' case, that means finishing off a moribund Detroit squad that has shown no glimmer of the team that chased championships for seven straight postseasons before this one. At least in real life, you have one obituary, at which point you're literally written off. But in the playoffs, death comes in a best-of-seven package, so everyone will gather again Sunday afternoon at The Palace of Auburn Hills for a game the local fans have virtually no interest in seeing. Maybe the P.A. loudmouth who bellows "DEEE-troit! BAS-ketball!'' can share his microphone with the crickets that will be chirping there.

The plus-minus numbers for the once-proud Pistons starting lineup through three games: Richard Hamilton, minus-55; Tayshaun Prince, minus-45; Rasheed Wallace, minus-44; Antonio McDyess, minus-34; and Rodney Stuckey, minus-32.

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