Three-Pointers: Lillard's buzzer-beater to sink Rockets marks playoffs' latest prize
One second, let me catch my breath... OK. After the Houston Rockets scored with just 0.9 seconds remaining, Damian Lillard hit a buzzer-beating three-pointer to give the Portland Trail Blazers a miraculous 99-98 win in Game 6 and clinch a 4-2 first-round series victory.
• Long live the NBA playoffs. If you're like me and you've spent the last two weeks staying up into the wee hours consuming massive amounts of playoff basketball, you've been rewarded with a buzz that would satisfy even the biggest of hoops junkies. The first round of the NBA playoffs has already featured 21 games decided by five points or less after having just 18 such games all of last postseason. It's had eight overtime games -- including three in Blazers-Rockets alone and four straight in another series. And it will tie the record for most Game 7s in a single postseason with five this weekend! The crown jewel of the first round will be Saturday's tripleheader, marking the first time in league history there's been three Game 7s in one day. All of this shows that postseason parity is at an all-time high, with seedings seeming irrelevant and series being so even that the NBA couldn't have handpicked better matchups itself.
Saturday's late-night thriller between the Blazers and Rockets in Game 6, for all intents and purposes, a fantastic game. It was phenomenal. It was everything you could ask for in a heated playoff clash and more. It had star power, desperation, drama, big performances, controversial calls, clutch play, a buzzer-beating three-pointer and an awesome play-by-play call. Yet it'll probably get lost in the NBA news cycle pretty easily considering back-to-back-to-back Game 7s were set to start just 15 hours after Damian Lillard's game-winner swished through the net. That's how goodthe first round of the NBA playoffs have been. Where a game of this magnitude -- one that ended the Rockets' season just seconds after it appeared to have been remarkably saved -- can get lost in the shuffle. That's a pretty incredible feat.
Almost as incredible as the scene in Portland after the Blazers' win. The Moda Center had been silenced a few minutes before by the Rockets' Chandler Parsons, who grabbed an opportunistic offensive rebound and converted a clutch reverse layup with less than second to go to give the Rockets a 98-96. A winner-take-all clash in Houston would have been played Sunday. Instead, Damian Lillard ended the series right then and there. He came off a screen, caught the inbounds pass from Nicolas Batum, and rose up for a quick release that netted the NBA's first series-winning buzzer-beater since 1997:
Lillard's shot was so sensational -- a fitting exclamation mark to a game worthy of ALL CAPS -- that I was a little surprised Blazers fans didn't rush the floor (they sure looked close) amid the jubilation. Portland was 0.9 seconds away from having Game 6 stolen from out under it. Instead, Lillard's heave gave Portland its first playoff series win since 2000.
This is no hyperbole: Lillard's shot will go down as one of the greatest in playoff history. The difficulty of the attempt, the stakes of the clash, the drama of the final few minutes. It's tough to believe that a game so compelling and thrilling could come in the first round.
Even tougher to believe: the Blazers' last-second win is just the start of a weekend loaded with five Games 7s -- and even more time on my couch.
• LaMarcus Aldridge ate up the Rockets again. SI's own Lee Jenkins wrote a fantastic profile in March on Bobcats big man Al Jefferson, calling Charlotte's low-post whiz the "lord of the left block." With that awesome distinction already taken, LaMarcus Aldridge will have to settle for "lieutenant of the left side." Or, maybe: "MVP of the first round."
Aldridge is currently second in scoring (29.8) and fourth in rebounding (11.2) this postseason, putting up two 40-point games against the Rockets and carrying his team into the second round of the playoffs for the first time in his career. In Game 6 on Friday, Aldridge was a dominant force once again for the Blazers, totaling 30 points and 13 rebounds and leaving the Rockets shaking their heads.
In theory, the Rockets are well equipped to handle a post threat like Aldridge. They boast Dwight Howard, a three-time Defensive Player of the Year, the 7-foot Omer Asik, an elite defender in his own right, and Terrence Jones, a smaller, quicker, more athletic option. But Aldridge treated all three like red-and-white folding chairs this series, nailing shot after shot in their eyes. Think about how demoralizing Aldridge's 30 points must have been to the Rockets' bigs. Houston had faced Portland nine times this season before Friday and knew exactly what Aldridge was going to do in Game 6 -- and they still couldn't stop him.
That's because Aldridge is one of the most skilled -- and versatile -- post players in the league. In the high or low post, Aldridge has an arsenal of moves that'll make you look foolish and keep you off-balance. But the not one area he's not willing to compromise is which side of the floor he operates on. Aldridge sets up so often on the left side that he might as well make it his mailing address. The Blazers big man treats the right side like a little kid treats the floor like lava. To point: Aldridge made just four of his 68 field goals against the Rockets from the right side of the court. That's because Aldridge lives on the left side. Despite starting from relatively the same spot on the floor, the Blazers star is able to give opponents a variety of looks. Sometimes its the jumper, other times the hook. Sometimes in the post, sometimes facing up. But always from the left. Here's a look at a heat map of Aldridge's scoring from the 2013-14 regular season:
Game 6 was no different than Aldridge's performance on the season. In one particularly impressive sequence, Aldridge made three consecutive 18-foot jumpers from the left side in a two-minute span during the second quarter, burning Asik twice before schooling him once more and drawing the foul.
All Asik could do was shake to his head and retreat to the bench. The lieutenant of the left side had the Rockets' number.
• Dwight Howard shouldn't shoulder the blame. Howard is a popular, and easy, target of criticism -- but Houston's first-round exit isn't a result of his play.
Howard had 26 points and 11 rebounds in Game 6 and averaged 26 and 13.7 for the series. On Friday, he dominated in the fourth quarter, looking like the player fans fell in love with when he was with the Magic. Howard even hit 62.5 percent of his free throws in the series, a respectable climb from his 54.3 season average.
While James Harden struggled against the Blazers -- shooting just 37.6 percent for the series -- Howard played some of his best basketball of the season. His efforts were trumped by Aldridge and the Blazers, but they're also what kept the Rockets in the series.
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