PORTLAND -- There wasn't much to say after Friday night's game at the Moda Center. Players in the Trail Blazers' locker room looked noticeably upset, the way many would look after losing in overtime despite erasing an 11-point lead in the fourth quarter.
It wasn't an easy thing to swallow for Portland after being tied with the Houston Rockets at 116 with just 30 seconds left with a chance to take an insurmountable 3-0 series lead. It was then that James Harden tried to work a pick-and-roll with Dwight Howard. Harden drove to the right, but the Blazers' Dorell Wright poked the ball away from the superstar's weak hand and sent the ball to the floor. Mo Williams dove for the ball, but lost it when Jeremy Lin jumped over him and snatched it from his grasp. There was nothing the Trail Blazers could do as Lin flipped the ball to little-known Troy Daniels, a standout for the NBA D-League's Rio Grande Valley Vipers that was getting his chance to shine. Daniels was waiting on the left arc for the chance at a winning three-pointer, and he took advantage of it.
"He's a shooter, but you really can't scheme for something like that," said Blazers star forward LaMarcus Aldridge.
Rewind to before anyone -- even a former D-Leaguer -- hit the court. Things were already hot in Portland. Excitement in Rip City was palpable to start the game. While the skies were opening up with heavy, fat drops of Pacific Northwest rain, the interior of the Moda Center was smoky and electric. Hosting their first home playoff game in three years, the Blazers pulled out all the stops. Every fan in the arena had LED light-up thunder sticks that glowed red during player introductions. The noise level in the arena hit a deafening 121 dB.
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Marketing pleasantries over, it was the Rockets that came out of the gate gunning from three-point range, pushing Patrick Beverley onto the arc to test Lillard. For Portland, establishing their All-Star power forward was again the number one priority.
Houston had to do something to stop Aldridge, who scored a combined 89 points in the first two games. The Rockets started Omer Asik in place of Terrence Jones and double-teamed Aldridge late in possessions on the low block to create pressure. The plan worked like a charm, and Aldridge had just four points on eight attempts in the first half.
Despite the strong effort by the Rockets to lock him down, Portland's offensive attack came roaring to life in the second half. Damian Lillard stepped up to the plate, offering 30 points on 9-of-16 shooting. Lillard, who has improved his at-rim percentage greatly since the All-Star break, shot 4-of-6 from under eight feet and 4-of-8 on three-pointers.
Damian Lillard's improvement as a finisher might have been the most important development of the season.— Kevin Pelton (@kpelton) April 26, 2014
"He took on the challenge," said Aldridge. "He made shots. He got to the basket and he definitely carried us offensively."
Portland's All-Star point guard had help in the form of Mo Williams, as the one-two punch in the Blazers backcourt combined for a total of 20 points in the fourth quarter.
But in overtime, Houston's defensive plan got the better of the Trail Blazers. Aldridge forced two long-range shots that missed the mark, and with the game tied late, the Rockets got the crack they needed to steal the game.
"It came down to one play, and they made one more play than we did," said Lillard.
The play in question was the three-pointer by Daniels, a relative unknown who played in his first NBA game just two months ago and barely suited up since. An undrafted shooter from Virginia Commonwealth that lit it up for the Rockets' D-League affiliate, Daniels had the biggest game of his life when he was inserted into the usually-thin lineup for Kevin McHale. Daniels scored nine points on 3-of-6 shooting, all from beyond the arc. The Trail Blazers, who had scouted Daniels as a potential shooter on tape, hadn't expected the rookie to make all that much of an impact in his playoff series debut. Portland head coach Terry Stotts said he wasn't sure Daniels could do anything else other than shoot.
Yet as the Trail Blazers players met media after the game on Friday with straight faces and frustrated pauses between answers, things were no better for the Rockets. In the visitors locker room, there were no joyous celebrations, high-fives or playful jeering teammates typically engage in after a big win. Down 2-1 and still in hostile territory, Houston knows better than that.
"Just because we won, we feel better," Chandler Parsons said. "But by any means, we didn't play great."
Despite winning Friday's game, Houston allowed Portland to shoot 45.6 percent from the field and knock down 10 threes. They won the game on a broken play. The exacting, fast paced transition in-and-out game we've seen from them all season is nowhere to be found. In its place is a makeshift defensive strategy that barely held its ground in OT.
As James Harden and Troy Daniels took the podium to speak to media after the game, Harden put Daniels' participation in the ending sequence in perspective.
"He saved our season," said Harden.
Down the hall, Portland's high hopes received only a touch of reality. It's rare that the lower seed takes the first two games in unfamiliar territory. Despite getting beaten by Jeremy Lin and a recent D-League player down the stretch, the feeling in Portland on Friday wasn't of depression, but of sobriety.
"It would be a problem if we lost this game because of effort or [if] we weren't focused on taking care of business, but we were," Lillard said. "It's the playoffs. Nobody said we were going to come out and sweep them."
LaMarcus Aldridge, although obviously frustrated that his team didn't end the night up 3-0, echoed that perspective.
"We're still in control."