The Trail Blazers defeated the Rockets 122-120 in overtime at Houston's Toyota Center on Sunday to take a 1-0 series lead.
• Night of his life. LaMarcus Aldridge didn't answer definitively when asked if he had just completed the best game of his career. He did admit that he was taking home the game ball and that he would add it to his collection, but he hemmed and hawed otherwise. In all honesty, Aldridge could have sat at the podium in complete silence; rarely does a performance so thoroughly speak for itself.
The 28-year-old three-time All-Star is no stranger to big nights, but he's never accomplished anything in the vicinity of his 46-point, 18-rebound outing against the Rockets. He surpassed his career-high (44 points), his postseason career-high (31) points, the Blazers' postseason franchise scoring record (45 points), and he put together a scoring/rebounding combination that has come along roughly five years since the mid-1980s. He entered Sunday with just 18 playoff appearances and four playoff double-doubles; he left Sunday with that game ball and home court advantage.
"It's an honor. It's surreal. I'm truly blessed," Aldridge said afterwards. "I've been a Trail Blazer all my life. I want to try to break every record if I can."
His final line: 46 points (on 17-for-31 shooting) 18 rebounds (seven offensive), two assists, two blocks and a +17 in 45 minutes. Aldridge joins five Hall of Fame caliber players as the only guys to reside in the 45+ points/15 + rebounds club for a postseason game since 1986.
"We'll have to come up with some ways to get the ball out of his hands," Rockets coach Kevin McHale said. "We just didn't have any answers for him."
Aldridge punished Terrence Jones, James Harden and any other undersized defenders that Houston threw at him. He guessed during his post-game comments that the Rockets will start bracketing him with two defenders in Game 2. There were plenty of big moments: a crucial tip in that tied the game in the closing seconds of regulation and a rare three-pointer in overtime were the biggest. On the season, Aldridge hit a total of three three-pointers in nearly 2,500 minutes played; against the Rockets, he connected twice from downtown in one game, marking just the second time in 596 career games (regular season and postseason) that he's hit more than one three-pointer.
"He's been hiding that all season," Blazers coach Terry Stotts quipped. "His two threes were big for us."
The Point Forward's series preview noted that Rockets/Blazers would be entertaining and high-scoring, and there was no better evidence of that than the fact that Aldridge's monster night only delivered a two-point victory. What's more, Aldridge wasn't in to see the game's concluding sequences, due to foul trouble. Blazers All-Star guard Damian Lillard, playing in the first postseason game of his career, scored five points in the final minute of overtime to finish with 31 points (on 9-for-19 shooting), nine rebounds and five assists.
"That was a questionable last foul call on me," Aldridge said, referring to his sixth foul, which came on a moving screen in the backcourt. "I went to Dame and said, 'Take it over.'"
Lillard did just that, and his effort was just enough to deliver the win once a contested James Harden jumper rimmed off at the final buzzer.
• Missed opportunities. Rockets/Blazers was easily the most tense -- start-to-finish -- of the eight games played this weekend, and Houston will look back at the night with serious lament. Both teams have developed a reputation for streaky play, and the home team looked strongly in command on multiple occasions, holding a 13-point lead early in the third quarter, an 11-point lead midway through the fourth quarter, and a six-point lead early in overtime.
Alas, the Rockets seemed to play their sloppiest at the very moments they should have been stomping on the Blazers' throats. James Harden, in particular, should feel responsible for the endgame errors, even though he finished with 27 points (on 8-for-28 shooting), six assists and five rebounds. Houston's All-Star guard and primary closer went 2-for-9 during the fourth quarter and overtime, coming up empty on four consecutive shots during the final 1:11 of the extra period. His defensive attentiveness was lackluster all night, and he also finished with four turnovers.
"You've got to value each possession," Howard said afterwards. "We had a solid lead, but anything can happen in the playoffs."
Stotts succeeded in breaking up Houston's rhythm by deploying Hack-a-Howard late in the fourth quarter. Overall, Howard finished 9-for-17 from the foul line, but a series of misses late in regulation helped Portland put together an 11-0 run to climb back into a game that seemed over.
It was a strange night for Howard, who dominated at times, as he finished with 27 points (on 9-for-21 shooting), 15 rebounds and four blocks. His night went sideways during multiple confrontations with Blazers center Robin Lopez, and Howard eventually fouled out during overtime while grappling with Joel Freeland for a rebound. The call was questionable, to be sure, but Howard passed on using the situation as an excuse.
"We can't look to the officials for games," he said. "We have to win no matter how good or bad the call may be. When you start looking for calls, it takes away the focus."
In reviewing the game tape, the Rockets will surely conclude that this game never should have gotten to overtime. Pulling Howard more quickly after his free-throw misses and getting him back into the game more quickly once the game was under two minutes certainly had the potential to help craft a different result.
• The big question. Houston hardly seemed broken during its press conferences following the emotional defeat. Nevertheless, they faced a quintessential "adding injury to insult" proposition when Patrick Beverley suffered a sprained right knee late in the game.
Clearly one of the series' x-factors, Beverley played well, posting nine points (on 3-for-8 shooting) and six rebounds and marking Lillard throughout. Houston's defensive specialist suffered meniscus damage in his right knee back in March, and was remarkably able to avoid surgery. Now, he's set for an MRI on Monday and his status for Game 2, which is set for Wednesday, is uncertain.
"It hurts all of us," Howard said of the injury, "but we have to step up as a team and win it for him."
That comment sounded ominous, but it's clearly better to wait until the doctors weigh in. Without Beverley, Houston would be in some trouble. Harden and Jeremy Lin would be able to manage the play-making, but McHale went only eight players deep on Sunday, and he used only three true backcourt players (Harden, Beverley and Lin). Neither Harden nor Lin is equipped to stop Lillard at the point of attack, and Harden was struggling badly with his off-the-ball defense.
It's unclear where McHale will turn to fill Beverley's hole if he does miss time.
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