In a gritty comeback effort that epitomized a team win, it seemed only fitting that the game-winner came from a Rocket whose only contribution to the box score was a personal foul.
With the Rockets clinging to a two-point lead with under 15 seconds left, Chuck Hayes read Brandon Roy's drive to the bucket, slid in and drew a charge, extinguishing the Blazers' best chance to tie the series and giving the Rockets a thrilling 89-88 win in Game 4 at Toyota Center. The Rockets now own a commanding 3-1 lead in the best-of-seven, first-round series.
"He had no points and no rebounds, and made the biggest play of the game," forward Carl Landry told Hair Balls. "That's Chuck."
"He's just incredible," head coach Rick Adelman said of Hayes. "The guy doesn't play probably the whole game, I put him in there when the game's on the line and he sees that coming. I've seen him do that so many times. He's so quick and he's so smart defensively and he just got there. That's Chuck."
Hayes played just four minutes and five seconds, and his only tangible output was the aforementioned foul. But the Rockets are filled with players like Hayes and Shane Battier whose contributions go beyond traditional numbers, and that was no more evident than in Sunday night's big win.
"You just have to be ready," Hayes said. "That comes with being a professional. It comes from seeing the game, reading the play and watching how things go. There are a lot more things than points and rebounds and what the stat sheet says."
With five minutes remaining, the Rockets had successfully overcome a six-point deficit entering the final period. They had finally gotten Yao Ming involved, to the tune of 21 points on 7-of-14 shooting, while Luis Scola added his typical rock-solid night of 17 points and eight rebounds.
But like Hayes, it was the unsung heroes who delivered down the stretch.
When Scola picked up his fifth foul with 5:32 left, Landry entered in his place and skied for two crucial offensive rebounds -- one of which set up a Battier triple that gave the Rockets the lead for good -- and hit a critical 20-footer from the top of the key.
"My focus in the last five minutes was to grab every rebound, offensively and defensively," Landry said. "Myself and Chuck, as well as Von [Wafer] and Kyle [Lowry] and the rest of the guys, we have to be prepared. You never know when you're going to get your name called. Tonight, we got our names called in the last five minutes and we got it done."
Similar to Friday's Game 3, Shane Battier stepped in and buried two enormous threes in the final five minutes. Perhaps more importantly, his defense stifled Roy on the game's defining possession.
Ron Artest covered Roy on the inbounds, but the job went to Battier after the Blazers set a screen. Battier blanketed Roy more than 30 feet away from the basket, and forced him into the paint, where Hayes was waiting to draw the charge. And even if Hayes hadn't, Battier still blocked the shot in a brilliant display of team defense.
"I don't play for the numbers," Battier said. "I play to win. I think everybody in the building knew that Brandon was going to take the last shot. Chuck did a fantastic job like he has done so many times this year of sliding over and getting under him. It was a huge play by Chuck."
And without Lowry's performance early in the final period, none of it would have likely been possible. When the Rockets were falling apart, turning a once double-digit lead into a six-point deficit with nine minutes to go, Lowry steadied the ship and refocused the Rockets offense on playing inside-out and getting Yao his touches inside. Yao responded with six points in an 8-0 Rockets spurt, giving the Rockets a 79-77 lead with 5:52 to play.
"Our body language wasn't the best in the fourth quarter," Battier said. "We just needed something to happen to spark it. Then Kyle Lowry did an outstanding job, we hit some shots, and we got back into the game."
Moreover, Lowry -- the smallest player on the court at six feet -- actually grabbed five rebounds in the final period, keeping numerous possessions alive through sheer determination and giving a cold-shooting Rockets' team extra chances. Portland led the league in rebounding differential in the regular season, but the Rockets have out-rebounded them in three of four games this series. To no surprise, they've won all three.
"[Rebounding] was No. 1 on our list of things we had to pay attention to coming into this series," Battier said. "They have so many active and long guys out there -- their wings are really elite rebounders as well. So every game we've really focused on trying to keep them off the boards and limiting them to one shot."
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Artest said Game 3 was one of the finest moments of his professional career because of the maturity he showed in passing up shots. While he returned to his usual high-volume form in Game 4, shooting 5-of-20 for 12 points, he still bought into the team-first mentality, dishing out a team-high nine assists.
It's that team mentality the Rockets must maintain in order to take care of business in Tuesday's Game 5 in Portland. Do that, and the Rockets will have accomplished something they haven't done as a franchise in 12 years -- win a postseason series.
"We still have one more game that we need to take care of," Yao said. "We have been in this situation before. From my perspective, it is still 0-0."
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