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Believe it: Rockets find clutch in Game 5

Blazers still can wrap up series at home Friday


by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Dwight Howard and the Houston Rockets earned a return trip to Portland for Game 6 after defeating the Trail Blazrs 108-98 on Wednesday.HOUSTON -- Damian Lillard had talked about how he wanted to finish off the Houston Rockets Wednesday night. "You don't want to let them believe too much," the Trail Blazers' All-Star point guard said.

Don't look now, but the Rockets are believing.

A 108-98 victory over Portland in Game 5 of their first-round playoff series at the Toyota Center provides both pulse and heartbeat for the Rockets, who now have every reason to think they'll go into the Moda Center Friday night and extend the series.

"We're confident going back to Portland," small forward Chandler Parsons said after Houston scored the final eight points of Wednesday's game to cut the Blazers' lead in the best-of-seven series to 3-2. "We're not hanging our heads at all. We believe in each other. Nobody in that locker room thinks this series is over. We have a chance to do something special."

Only eight teams in NBA history have rallied from 1-3 deficits to claim playoff series. The Rockets must still win two more games to accomplish that, but the momentum now swings their way.

"Our guys came out and battled," Houston coach Kevin McHale said. "They really wanted to get back to Portland and get another shot at them. Our season was hanging on tonight, and now our season hangs on Friday night."

The previous four games of the series were knockdown, drag-out battles that went down to the final minute. Three of them were decided in overtime. This one was of the same ilk. Only this time, it was the Rockets making the plays and the Blazers faltering down the stretch.

Portland trailed 100-98 after Damian Lillard's driving layup with 3:39 to play. 

"There's no question we thought we were going to win that game right there," said Portland Wesley Matthews, who scored a career playoff-high 27 points. "We've been a resilient team all year. There have been deficits we've pulled out of. There was no question we were going to fight. We just couldn't get over the hump."

The Blazers didn't score again, going 0 for 8 from the field the rest of the way. Houston, meanwhile, blocked three shots -- two by Dwight Howard -- and James Harden scored six of the final eight points down the stretch.

And suddenly, those "Clutch City" T-shirts the Rockets handed to every customer Wednesday night -- conjuring visions of the 1994 and '95 NBA championship teams -- didn't seem so far-fetched.

"They made plays," said Matthews, who was 9 for 18 from the field, 5 for 9 from 3-point range and 4 for 4 at the foul line. "You have to give them credit. They played with a sense of urgency, of desperation. We knew they would."

Lillard and Matthews were up to the challenge, combining for 53 points. Lillard was sensational with 26 points, eight rebounds, seven assists and four steals in 43 minutes.

Matthews had the greatest 12 minutes of his career in the third quarter, bombing in 18 points on 6-or-7 shooting, including 4 for 5 from 3-point range.

"He kept us afloat," Portland coach Terry Stotts said.

Matthews was in a zone, helping the Blazers -- who fell behind 51-34 in the second quarter and trailed 56-48 at the half -- get within 79-77 late in the third quarter.

"I felt good," Matthews said. "I was just playing basketball. I didn't go into that quarter thinking, 'I have to be more aggressive.' It's how the flow of the game went. my teammates were finding me and my shots were falling."

LaMarcus Aldridge, though, had a shockingly unproductive game. Portland's All-Star power forward, who had an averaged an NBA-high 35.3 points and 11.5 rebounds over the first four games, finished with eight points on 3-for-12 shooting and eight rebounds in 39 minutes.

Houston used 7-foot Omer Asik, and at times the 6-11 Howard, to defend Aldridge, and it worked well. It was only the second time all season Aldridge hasn't reached double figures. The other time was during a March 28 victory over Chicago, in which he scored five points on 2-for-10 shooting.

"We're just trying to keep bigger bodies on him, trying to make him shoot over the top," McHale said. "Matthews got really hot there, and Lillard was carrying them. It didn't seem like the ball found LaMarcus as much as it has in the past."

Said Parsons: "He's been cooking all series long. We threw him multiple defenses at him -- doubling, going small, going big. We want to make it uncomfortable and have him shoot those long fadeaway 2's. We're going to continue to have to key in on him, with the understanding they have four other guys who can hurt you as well."

Matthews and Stotts both pointed to Aldridge having to leave the game after picking up his second foul with 5:34 left in the first quarter.

"Losing L.A. with two quick fouls threw the team off our rhythm," Matthews said. "He's our franchise. He's been having a great series. Without him on the court, it took away from us. We were still able to fight back and give ourselves a chance to take the lead. (The Rockets) just seems to make more plays, more shots down the stretch."

"L.A. didn't score, but we still scored 98 points and had some opportunities in the last three minutes," Stotts said. "L.A.'s had better games in the series. I don't know if it was necessarily (Houston's) defense. We'll look at the video and see where we can get better."

Houston won most of the important statistical categories, including field-goal percentage (.473 to .434), rebounds (48-34), assists (23-14) and points in the paint (60-40). Part of that can be attributed to Aldridge having an off night.

Stotts was asked if he wants Aldridge to take more than 12 shots.

"It's the way the game turned out tonight," Stotts said. "What I want is for our team to get good shots. Whether L.A. gets 12 or 25 shots, we want to get good shots. 

"We're better when he has it going offensively. But the way I look at it, we have to do what it takes to win a game. How we get our points, I don't care. We didn't have as many assists as we should have tonight. We're better when the ball moves and finds shooters."

It was another lousy offensive night for Harden, who finished with 17 points and seven assists but made only 5 of 15 shots, including 1 of 7 from 3-point range.

Several of his teammates stepped up, though. Howard fought through early foul trouble to collect 22 points on 9-for-15 shooting to go with 14 rebounds and three blocked shots. Asik was big before fouling out in the fourth quarter with 10 points and 15 boards. Parsons scored 20 points with four rebounds and four assists, and Jeremy Lin had his best performance of the series, coming off the bench to sink 9 of 15 shots and contribute 21 points, four assists and three rebounds in 31 minutes.

"He hit two big shots as the shot clock was (expiring), big momentum plays," Stotts said. "That took a little bit out of us. His penetration hurt us, particularly in the second half. We know he's very capable of doing that. For him to have 21 off the bench gave them a lot."

Parsons knows what's in store for the Rockets Friday night at the Moda Center.

"It's going to be a hostile environment," he said. "By now, having played the same team five times, the scouting report is out the window. We just have to go out there and get it done."

Matthews said expectations will be to wrap up the series in Portland. 

"We're a confident group," he said. The Rockets "came home and took care of business. They did what they were supposed to do. That puts us in the position to do the same thing.

"We don't need to make any adjustments. We just need to tighten up. We've beaten this team three times. (Friday's game) is going to be a dogfight. It's going to be who wants it more."

NOTES: Portland set a franchise playoff record with 14 blocked shots. Aldridge and Lopez had four apiece and Matthews had three. … Portland's Nicolas Batum had a solid game with 15 points on 6-for-10 shooting along with five rebounds, four assists and no turnovers in 39 minutes. … Houston's bench outscored its Portland counterparts 34-5. Portland's Mo Williams made his first two shots but missed his last five, finishing with four points and three turnovers in 20 minutes. … It was a game of runs, especially in the first half. Houston used a 9-1 run to take a 24-21 lead, then went on a 15-0 spurt to move ahead 41-27 early in the second period, Portland going nearly 5 1/2 minutes without a point. The Blazers responded with a 7-0 spurt to draw within 41-34; the Rockets came back with another 10-0 tear and it was 51-34 midway through the second period. Portland answered with a 12-2 run to get within 53-46 just before the half. … Houston had 14 offensive rebounds and is averaging 17.2 per game in the series. … Harden is averaging 24.2 points but is shooting .348 from the field and only .250 from 3-point range.

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