The main thing you don’t want to do at the start of a playoff series is to lose game one. You also want to avoid having a key player suffer an injury, try to prevent the opposing star players from absolutely detonating and most of all don’t let double digit leads evaporate in record time. Unfortunately, the Houston Rockets went ahead and did all the things they shouldn’t have done, coughing up a huge loss in overtime and dropping home court advantage. The good news, if there is any, is that home court advantage seems to be meaningless so far, with road teams winning 5 of the 8 games this weekend.
The Rockets and NBA fans in general have a lot to be sore about in that game, mostly focusing on the confusing, inconsistent, frustrating officiating that seems to have taken over half of the playoff games so far. In the end, it was likely a wash for the Rockets, but the calls were seemingly random in frequency, legitimacy and direction. The NBA admitted to badly blowing a call at the end of the Clippers vs Warriors game on the 19th of April, and this game has a flagship call as well. Dwight Howard was called for his sixth foul late in overtime and the decision was questionable, to put it mildly. Replay showed Joel Freeland outright hugging Dwight, and a public admission of error is likely tomorrow. Whether that call would have helped or hurt the Rockets is frankly immaterial. The refereeing is obtrusive, distracting and disruptive, three things that are absolutely critical to avoid as a league.
To be frustrated at the officials does not absolve the Rockets of criticism, not even a little bit. Houston had the game in hand late in the 4th quarter, leading by 11 with just over 4 minutes remaining. The Trail Blazers countered with the Smite-a-Dwight strategy and the Rockets crumbled. Howard completely choked at the line repeatedly. The Blazers attacked the basket at will. The Rockets failed to move the ball on offense. All the specters and doubts that haunted the Rockets all season attacked in the last 4 minutes of regulation, and by overtime the damage was done.
Even after gaining a sudden 6-point lead at the start of overtime, the Rockets couldn’t close out at all. Their defensive gameplan for Damian Lillard seems to be “leave Beverley on him and hope for the best,” which is very similar to their plan to slow down LaMarcus Aldridge, a man who absolutely dominated Houston’s flimsy single coverage. Those two combined for 77 points on 50 shots, an obscene number. Aldridge added the biggest insult of the night by going 2-2 on three pointers after a season in which he went 3-15 in the regular season. In fact, the second three was a last second prayer at the edge of the court with Dwight Howard inside his jersey. When it rains, it pours in Houston.
On the one hand, Lillard and Aldridge aren’t likely to have career nights every game. Indeed, the Rockets were off and seemed unable to wake up or catch a break much of the game. They shot no free throws in the first half, missed piles of open shots, were inept from the charity stripe and just generally looked shell shocked. This was close to a worst case scenario, and they nearly won. On the other hand, the Blazers will continue to manhandle Houston if the Rockets can’t figure out a way to perform at a fundamental level. They continue to run a loose, iso-heavy offense that sputters at the drop of a hat. Their defense seems to have regressed, including such highlights as leaving Blazers totally open on the perimeter while somehow simultaneously not doubling anyone.
And that injury? Patrick Beverly went down hard late in the game and began to favor his previously injured right knee. He continued to play for a few minutes but was later helped to the locker room. The official release is that he suffered a sprained knee and will have an MRI scan tomorrow to asses the injury. Absolutely the last thing the Rockets need is to feed Jeremy Lin to Damian Lillard for the rest of this series and then to Tony Parker if they make it that far.
Lin, for what it’s worth, had a good game, playing aggressive ball and getting to the rack at will. His 5-11 shooting would have been better if he hadn’t caught a case of the layup misses along with the rest of the team. Harden had more shots than points, went 3-14 on threes and turned it over 4 times. Not his best game. The strategy of tiring and frustrating him with Wes Matthews post play may have worked, something the Rockets will need to worry about.
Dwight Howard looked like a zombie in the first half but ended up with 27 points and 15 rebounds. Chandler Parsons had a respectable 24 points on 10-21 shooting, but his 3-11 from deep wasn’t optimal. Terrence Jones’ 12 points and 13 rebound double double was a bright spot in an otherwise mediocre outing from the Rockets statistically. They couldn’t hit threes, they couldn’t execute, they couldn’t box out and they couldn’t find the open man.
The Portland Trail Blazers quite simply wanted the game more. If this game serves as a wake-up call for a groggy Rockets team, so be it. Their focus and intensity have waffled all season, and they need to get that under control now more than ever. There’s plenty of reason that the Rockets will be able to pull the series out and move on, but it will require a level of discipline they’re so far loathe to exhibit. The most important factor, however? Hoping that Patrick Beverley is okay.