If there is one thing we have learned through five games between Houston and Portland, it is that these are two very evenly matched teams. In five games, there have been three overtimes. Take away Wednesday night's win for the Rockets by 10 points and the remaining four games were decided by a total of 17 points.
There were surprises all over the floor on Wednesday, including James Harden being outscored by both Jeremy Lin (21) and Robin Lopez (18), as Harden's struggles shooting continue. But the defense for the Rockets saw marked improvement in game five, forcing yet another elimination game Friday in Portland. As always, you win some, you lose some, and here are some examples.
If anything can put a submission hold on the Donald Sterling debacle -- besides the lady boners Adam Silver gave middle-age women balding lawyer-loving ladies across the country with his no-BS speech and sanctions against the bigoted soon-to-be-former LA Clippers owner -- it's great basketball, and this first round of the NBA playoffs has provided it. With more overtime games than any previous first round and incredible competition across the league, maybe this can help squelch a scandal surround a racist idiot who also happens to be one of the worst owners in professional sports.
Jermey Lin Fans
For all the conspiracy theorists who think Coach Kevin McHale holds Lin back and the players shut him out (puh-lease!) for whatever reason you want -- racism, his documentary, he went to Harvard -- I would hope this would remind them that if Lin plays well, people will get behind him again. His fans are certainly diehard (some even claiming to be sports "journalists" for local commercial blogs) -- and it didn't hurt that Patrick Beverley could only play about 20 minutes with a 101-degree fever -- and as I tweeted Wednesday night, the good news is Lin played really well, but the bad news his fans will be even more insufferable than ever.
Well, well, it turns out that defense is not just something that fans mindlessly chant at games hoping someone, anyone on the floor will listen. Dwight Howard and Omer Asik have been outstanding most of the series, but on Wednesday even Harden, a sieve of a defender, managed to make some significant plays on the opposite end of the floor from normal. The rotations on the perimeter were outstanding and, for the first time in the series, LaMarcus Aldridge looked like just another power forward.
In the first four games, the Rockets were shooting under 25 percent with less than five minutes to play (and in overtime) and with the teams separated by five points or less. I'm not sure the numbers from Wednesday, but no doubt they were above that. Game after game, the Rockets have been unable to hold leads thanks mainly to porous defense, but it never helps when you can't make shots and on Wednesday, they made the shots they needed to win...never mind maintain the lead they got early.
Worrell: "If Calvin Murphy were playing Mo Williams tonight" ... @bull50 "There'd be a few punches thrown, don't you think?"
— David Barron (@dfbarron) May 1, 2014
In honor of my friend and colleague, Sean Pendergast, if leads for the Rockets were characters from The Sopranos, they would have all been whacked in the first four episodes of season one. Yet another good sized lead came tumbling down in game five despite the Rockets holding on to win. I would never encourage the Rockets to get behind early, but maybe just keep it close and not worry to much about leading. Save that energy for late in the game...that or learn how to close out.
The trajectory of Aldridge's scoring in the series has looked a bit like a chart of the stock market circa September, 2008. He has scored in order of games 46, 43, 23, 29 and 8. Some has a change in the defense being played on him (How could it have been worse than in the first two games when he was being compared to Hakeem Olajuwon?), but it is also possible that things are simply evening out for the Blazers All-Star power forward. No one imagined he would continue to score 40 a night as the series progressed any more than we should think he won't hit double figures in game six.
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James Harden vs. Wesley Matthews (if you are a Rockets fan)
Before this series began, I really didn't have a clue who Wesley Matthews is. By the time game four was in the books, I was describing him as the modern-day equivalent of Jeff Hornacek, a member of the Utah Jazz in the '90s universally hated by Rockets fans. His defense on Harden has been nothing short of outstanding and after a 3-17 drought from the three point line, he has been lighting it up from downtown. He, via Portland coach Terry Stotts's game plan, has also exposed some continued defensive struggles from Harden in an attempt (successful apparently) to wear down the Rockets guard early in the game.
Mo Williams's Mouth
At the end of game four, Williams got in the face of rookie guard Troy Daniels as the Rockets left the floor. He continued his "mind games" when he was quoted in the Portland papers talking about the "young fella" (he refused to use Daniels's name) and clearly trying to get in his head. It didn't work and the entire team rallied around Daniels with some punishing treatment of Williams throughout game five, including a slight forearm shiver from Chandler Parsons. If Williams had the ability to back up his yapping with his play on the floor, it might be one thing. As it is, he's better off keeping his trap shut.