Five years is an eternity in the NBA.
Five years ago, the Houston Rockets were supposed to be championship contenders. Their goal was not to just get to the second round or to the Conference Finals, but to hoist the Larry O’Brien trophy up in June. The trio of Yao Ming, Tracy McGrady, and new arrival Ron Artest was supposed to be Houston’s answer to the Garnett-Pierce-Allen trio that had just won the championship for Boston. It had defense in Artest and Shane Battier, it had offense in Yao Ming, McGrady, and Coach Rick Adelman. And after the Yao-McGrady Rockets had suffered for years with the lack of impact role players, Luis Scola, Carl Landry, Aaron Brooks, and others were supposed to be capable of finally supporting the trio of stars.
So much has changed since then. McGrady, Yao and the renamed Metta World Peace are no longer in the NBA. Scola, Landry, and Battier are barely hanging around, and not a single member of that 2008-09 team is still on the Rockets today. But just like this year’s Rockets seek to eliminate the Portland Trail Blazers in the first round, so did the Rockets five years ago. They would defeat the Blazers in six games, in what has been Houston’s only playoff series win since 1997.
Five years is just as long for the Portland Trail Blazers as it is for Houston. Portland still has two players who played against Houston, Nicolas Batum and LaMarcus Aldridge. The rookie Batum started, but he was benched throughout the series in favor of Travis Outlaw and Rudy Fernandez, and LaMarcus was just a young power forward with a great jump shot, the clear second option to Brandon Roy. Roy was at his absolute height before his knees gave out, and I will observe this: Roy in Round 1 scared me more than Kobe Bryant did in Round 2. Earlier that season, Roy had hit a buzzer beater game winner against the Rockets, a shot which was replayed over and over in NBA TV commercials over the next few years. It was one of Houston’s worst losses of the season, and furthermore gave the Blazers homecourt advantage over the Rockets in the first round.
But even though Portland was the slight favorite as the series began, they were young and inexperienced. It was the Blazers’ first playoff series since 2003, and in Game 1, both Roy and Aldridge came out unprepared. On top of that, Blazers coach Nate McMillan committed the single greatest coaching blunder of the series. McMillan had two tough centers in Joel Pryzbilla and the then healthy Greg Oden. Perhaps confident in them, he decided at the beginning of the series to have them as well as Aldridge guard Yao Ming straight up. No double teams, no fronting.
It was a disaster. With his size, skill, and shooting touch, Yao was as unstoppable in the post as few other players have ever been in league history. The way to stop Yao was not to guard him in the post – it was to prevent him from getting the ball in the first place. Sadly, that had always proven to be fairly easy. Throughout the entire 2008-09 season, team after team would send small power forwards like Al Harrington to front Yao and deny him the ball. Even though you would think it would be easy to get Yao the ball given his size, Yao’s lack of mobility and mediocre hands in fact made it a highly frustrating affair which was discussed by the Rockets and the outside media and length. But with the Blazers not employing that defense to start the series, Yao came out absolutely scorching. He finished with 24 points at the end of the first half of Game 1, hitting 9 of his shots and looking absolutely unstoppable. Houston led by 18 points at the end of the half. Portland had a highly efficient offense, but it was also very slow and methodical, which meant that they placed few points on the board. Faced with such a deficit, the young team crumbled in Game 1, and the Rockets had retaken homecourt advantage.
The Blazers adjusted to Yao in Game 2, and employed the same fronting tactics used around the league. Yao took just 6 shots in Game 2. That game was remembered not for Yao Ming, but for his backup center, the great Dikembe Mutombo. Those who weren’t Rockets fans back then have to understand how beloved Dikembe was in Houston at that time. Year after year, the old man hesitated to return to basketball. Year after year, he came to Houston, backed up Yao Ming, and wagged his finger whenever he blocked a shot. You couldn’t help but wonder whether Dikembe could play more minutes, even at the age of 42. But in Game 2, Mutombo’s body gave out. On a routine box-out against Oden, he landed awkwardly and ruptured his quadriceps. The Blazers crowd, knowing that this was the end for Mutombo, applauded as he was carted off the floor. To add insult to injury, the Rockets lost Game 2 as Brandon Roy dropped 42 points.
The Rockets returned to Houston for Games 3, and 4, and then we saw Houston adjust to Portland’s adjustment on Yao. To front a basketball player requires two players: one to prevent the entry pass, and a backside defender in case the pass goes through. Thus, while Yao Ming was stymied by Portland’s defense after his brilliant Game 1, Portland’s defense also freed up Aaron Brooks and Luis Scola. Scola and Battier led Houston to victory in Game 3, and then Yao Ming had another great performance in Game 4, with 21 points. In another daring coaching move, when the Blazers had the ball down 87-85 in the closing seconds, Rick Adelman chose to substitute in Chuck Hayes for Yao Ming. The move worked perfectly as Hayes drew the charge, and Houston had the 3-1 lead. But Portland won Game 5, and thus the crucial Game 6 was played in Houston.
Not that national audiences, including myself, ever got to watch Game 6 live. In the 2009 first-round playoffs, the Bulls-Celtics series utterly outshone every other first round series. Despite the low stakes involved with two teams that everyone knew was not going to win the title, the games themselves were incredibly exciting, with 7 total overtimes in the 7 games. The Houston game was scheduled right after Game 6 of the Bulls-Celtics series, but then that game turned into a triple-overtime affair. By the time the Bulls secured the victory, it was halftime in Houston, and the Rockets were up by 15, largely due to a complete lack of Blazers production outside of Roy and Aldridge. Just like Game 1, the game was largely over at that point. In the closing minutes, Ron Artest, in a light parody of his infamous moment in Detroit, ran into the stands and was mobbed by the Houston crowd. As the game ended, he grabbed a microphone and exhorted the crowd to congratulate the Blazers.
So now 5 years later, what does this series mean as Houston seeks to defeat Portland? A lot has changed. Roy is gone, Aldridge is now the main star for Portland, and they have an All-Star point guard in Damian Lillard. The Rockets of the past are all gone, replaced by a new center and swingman duo. But while the victory over Portland has been Houston’s only playoff win since 1997, the Blazers have not advanced to the second round since 2000, when they collapsed against the Lakers in the Conference Finals. Both teams have been overshadowed over the past decade by teams like the Lakers, Spurs, and Mavericks. Now they will both seek to have their moment in the sun.