It’s right there if the Portland Trail Blazers want it.
The “it” in question is a chance to extinguish the Houston Rockets with a series-clinching win in just five games. Get the win and high tale it out of H-town before the reeling Rockets can catch wind of what has hit them.
The Blazers are not stealing games, they are winning them with clutch performances on both sides of the ball and attention to late-game execution. Certainly their defense will need to be better for any chance at further playoff success, giving up 116.5 points per game so far, but they have shown the ability to play smarter than Houston when it matters most.
One of the reasons why Portland has been able to finish games strong is because they consistently attack James Harden. The Beard is sporting a very giving 119 defensive rating this series and a popup that reads “ole” should appear over his head every time a Blazer scurries past him. The pressure created on Houston’s front line due to Harden’s matador ways has sent an already porous defense scrambling trying to recover from his mistakes. If it’s not a layup it’s a drive and kick pass leading to an open jumper for the Blazers every time Harden’s man attacks.
Now up 3-1, the Blazers must take the next step in their evolution as a basketball team and close out the shell-shocked Rockets, who had designs of reaching the NBA Finals this season. The old adage of you can’t give a team life is certainly in play here. Houston is wounded and dangerous, but must be kicked while they are down.
Typically in these situations, the team on the brink of elimination comes out in a tizzy, knocking down shots from all angles, whooping and chest bumping on every play to keep the crowd engaged. The Blazers should expect to see James Harden knocking down ridiculous step-backs and Dwight Howard attempting to give the rim a makeover with every touch in that opening quarter.
Portland will need to do what they have done all series long, weather the storm and answer the furious haymaker run the Rockets are sure to bring. The Blazers quick-paced but measured half-court attack has allowed them to get back into games whenever Houston gets their act together for a few possessions to form a lead. Portland’s mid-range assassin, LaMarcus Aldridge (35.3 points per game), has been the anchor but their perimeter players have done a hell of a job all series long.
Damian Lillard (25.5 points and 7.5 assists in the series) is wise beyond his basketball years, showing the poise of a veteran in these playoffs. His ability to show that same maturity in a closeout game is now what will be tested as Houston throws what should be their best punch of the series in Game 5.
The Blazers have earned themselves a two-game cushion but urgency to wrap things up quickly should be at the forefront of their thoughts. Rest could be their reward as the Dallas Mavericks seem to be willing to challenge the San Antonio Spurs to a long series.
Portland is looking like a true contender and true contenders take care of business when the opportunity presents itself. It’s right there … if they want it.