In the fifth overtime game of the NBA's still-infant postseason, the Houston Rockets pulled off a thrilling 121-116 OT win over the Portland Trail Blazers to cut their first-round series deficit to 2-1.
• Just as we all predicted, Troy Daniels won Game 3 for the Rockets... Wait, what? The Rockets got the unlikeliest of boosts in the timeliest of ways. James Harden had 37 points, Dwight Howard put up a monster double-double and Omer Asik helped contain the red-hot LaMarcus Aldridge, but Game 3 of the Rockets and Blazers' first-round series belongs to Troy Daniels.
I'll forgive you if you haven't heard of Daniels before. To be quite honest, I hadn't either. Daniels didn't play in Games 1 or 2 of the Rockets' first-round series and didn't play much at all during the regular season either, appearing in just five games. Instead, the 22-year-old rookie out of VCU spent most of the year in the NBA's Developmental League, playing for the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, where he did this:
Needless to say, Daniels isn't shy. He led the D-League with 240 made three-pointers this season, catching Houston's attention and leading to a call-up on April 9. Daniels started in the Rockets' regular-season finale and played 43 minutes, scoring 22 points and hitting six three-pointers. It was enough to clinch him a spot on the team's playoff roster, but not enough to get him off the bench in the Rockets' first two games against the Blazers as Kevin McHale trimmed his rotation.
When you're down 0-2, on the road and shoulder-deep in desperation, you'll try just about anything.
Enter Daniels, the D-Leaguer who gave the Rockets the unlikeliest spark of this postseason. The 6-foot-4 sharpshooter came off the bench Friday to play 20 minutes, score nine points and hit 3-of-6 three-pointers, including the game-winning triple in OT that saved the Rockets' season.
With the game tied at 116-116 and in the closing seconds of overtime, the Rockets trotted out four guards (Harden, Lin, Beverley, Daniels) and Howard in attempt to space the floor. They called an isolation play for Harden, who finished with a career playoff-high 37, but lost the ball as Portland's defense collapsed on him in the lane. Lin dove for the ball on the ground, managed to recover and get back to his feet, and threw a cross-court pass to Daniels, who confidently stepped up like he had done so many times for Rio Grande this season and drained the shot of his life:
The basket gave the Rockets a 119-116 lead with 11 seconds remaining. After advancing the ball on a timeout, the Blazers' last-ditch effort failed when Nicolas Batum's three-pointer clanked off the back of the rim. After glancing off Beverley's hands, the rebound fittingly ended up in Daniels' hands, securing Houston's series-saving win after setting it up just moments before.
• Houston's grand (re)experiment paid off. Remember when the Rockets signed Dwight Howard this offseason but already had a young, strong defensive center on the roster that averaged a double-double?
Their solution, at first, was to play both Howard and Omer Asik in the starting lineup, a strategy they bailed on after just eight games. The Rockets hadn't started Howard and Asik together ever since, but after watching Aldridge torch them for 40-plus points in back-to-back games, Houston decided to give the two-center look another try in Game 3.
Much like playing Daniels, McHale was rewarded for being bold with his lineup. Asik played 27 minutes and totaled just seven points and eight rebounds, but he more importantly helped hold Aldridge to just 23 points on 8-of-22 shooting (36.3 percent), 20 points less than he scored in their previous clash. The 7-foot, 255-pound Asik pasted himself to Aldridge, using his size and agility to contest the big man's shots. That led to a mortal performance from the Blazers star and a game-best +14 plus/minus rating for Asik, proof that McHale's lineup shakeup worked.
• Rockets' starting backcourt still has issues. You can't really say James Harden snapped out of his shooting funk with 37 points when they came on 35 shots. Nor can you feel great about Patrick Beverley's tenacious 42-minute performance (16 points, nine rebounds and non-stop defense) when you know he's a bad break away from a serious knee injury.
Harden is shooting just 36.5 percent for the series and has been bothered by the Blazers' trio of talented starting wing defenders, Nicolas Batum, Wesley Matthews and Damian Lillard. He played 50 minutes Friday and looked worn down at times.
Beverley, meanwhile, never gives you the slightest indication he's wearing down even when he should be. Just a month after tearing his meniscus, Beverley is back to playing 40 minutes per night, dogging opponents for 94 feet and playing defense like there's no tomorrow. If you read Lee Jenkins' profile on Beverley in last week's Sports Illustrated, you know Beverley isn't one to back down from a challenge (especially against his rival Lillard). But you have to wonder if Beverley's knee will be able to hold up through the rigors of the postseason, especially the way he plays. In Jenkins' profile, Beverley is infamously quoted as saying, "If I had to play myself, I'd probably want to fight me too."
The Rockets need Harden and Beverley for different reasons, but they need both equally to step up. Houston's offense doesn't click when its catalyst is off the mark and the team's perimeter defense fails to exist when Beverley isn't on the floor.
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