Well, there it is. Your Rockets did it. They won a playoff series. And while that doesn't seem like much for a team with higher aspirations, it most certainly means a great deal. Twelve years, folks - it was twelve years ago when we last won a playoff series. That number can go die now, because we finally took care of business on the line. We finally made the right shots. We finally made the big defensive stops. We finally got that damn monkey off our backs. And in the immortal words of one Gene Peterson, who summed it up so perfectly that I can't possibly think of anything better to say, "Oh, how sweet it is!"
I don't know where to begin. There is so much to write, and yet, for someone who was there and felt the emotion flowing from the nosebleeds to the floor, it is difficult to be analytical. It's tough to try to break things down, because I could really care less right now. I'm so incredibly happy that frankly, I don't give a damn who did what, because in the end, we won. But I'll try anyway.
Ron Artest's offense had been dormant all series. He'd had a few decent games of note, but he never really got going. Tonight, Ron played some of the best offensive basketball of his life. He was smart, efficient, and for once, he took shots that made you say, "Oh that's going in...YES!" He scored in a number of ways tonight, and I'd like to go over them in as much detail as possible.
First off, Ron was assertive on the drive. He had been reduced to a perimeter player for the majority of the series, and had yet to try to muscle out Brandon Roy and get to the basket. By driving strong to the hole and reading the post defenders, Ron gave himself two options upon getting into the paint. Option 1 was to take the ball all the way to the basket and lay it up. He had plenty of opportunities to do this, as LaMarcus Aldridge and Greg Oden/Joel Przybilla were hanging onto Luis Scola and Yao Ming for much of the first half. Ron made two layups in the first quarter against the tentative Portland help defenders, and on the third try, was fouled when they got to him too late to make a good play on the ball. By this time, Ron had made his presence in the lane known.
Option 2 became a drive and dish. While Carl Landry was blocked multiple times by Przybilla after receiving a pass from Artest, it was still an effective strategy getting into the paint, and at least Ron recognized the help defense and fed the ball down low to Landry, who was visibly struggling to get off the floor. In addition to driving and passing, Ron was able to catch the ball and make a dribble or two towards the basket off of a screen, and when the help defense came early, he was able to pass the ball back out to Yao Ming and Aaron Brooks, who hit two jump shots in the third quarter off of Artest assists.
Artest also effectively used the pick game. On one ocassion in the fourth quarter, Ron took Brandon Roy down to the block next to Yao, and immediately cut back up and off of Yao's shoulder towards the lane, providing a wide-open passing alley for Shane Battier to hit him with a pass. Shane made a great look, and Artest finished with a wide open layup. In addition to working the picks off the ball, Artest used them to free himself up for some easy jump shots. When I say easy, they may not look easy for most people, but Ron has certain preferences when looking to shoot off the dribble. The most obvious of those is when he is going to his left. On four or five possessions, Ron used Yao as a pick either in the corner or at the top of the key, and was able to dribble to the left, pull up, square his shoulders, and knock down the shot with ease.
Lastly, Ron finally found himself open at the three-point line. Roy had done a good job closing out on Ron for much of the series, and Artest was never able to get very many good looks. In Game 6, Artest found himself open as a result of a few broken plays on offense, and our guys did a great job getting him the ball. There are few better three-point shooters in the NBA than Ron when he has time to set his feet and take a shot in rhythm. Overall, Artest's offensive game was the biggest key for the Rockets, and his ability to wear down Brandon Roy on the defensive end contributed to Roy's inability to carry his team back like he has before. He looked visibly fatigued and couldn't escape Ron in the fourth to get himself open. Perhaps the most telling statistic of this game was that Brandon Roy did not take a single shot in the fourth quarter.
To put an exclamation point on his performance, Ron took an extended break during the fourth when he ran into the stands (...) after saving a ball to Yao. Instead of running back down the floor, Ron sat in an empty seat and smiled as he was instantly mobbed by fans. Play continued on despite Ron's absence, and after about ten long seconds, Rick Adelman called time-out in order to get Ron back down the floor. Security guards helped separate the crowd, and Ron walked down his imaginary red carpet and back down on the floor to an appreciative ovation from the crowd. If nothing else, this heads-up play by Ron forced Ricky to wake up and take Yao out of the game before something could go wrong. It's moments like these that make me want to pay more money to see Ron Artest in a Rockets uniform.
Above all else, our defense was spectacular. It was menacing and it was explosive - we forced fifteen turnovers from Portland, a team that was sixth best in the NBA in terms of least turnovers per game. Rudy Fernandez, Steve Blake, and Greg Oden each had more turnovers than points scored. Yao Ming deflected at least three passes that led to turnovers, and Aaron Brooks and Shane Battier did a phenomenal job reading passes and getting steals. We had nine steals in all, and most of them were on pure hustle plays. We got to the ball quicker than they did - it was that simple.
Yao's defense was quite remarkable. Like I said, he deflected many passes that lead to turnovers, and had a steal of his own. He also had two blocked shots to go along with a host of shot-changes, meaning that he was able to force the opponent to visibly change their shot in order to try to get it over his outstretched arms. He also got caught matched up against LaMarcus Aldridge a few times, and after getting scored on in the first battle, he was able to shuffle his feet and force Aldridge to pass the ball the next time around, which is incredible to me. He was also extremely aggressive and dove on the floor multiple times to secure the ball - I could go on an on. In all, it was a fantastic performance and one that we needed severely.
I was extremely impressed with our ability to close out on the three-pointers and force Rudy Fernandez and Steve Blake to either take bad shots or drive and dish. Fernandez finished 1-7 from the field, and Blake finished 1-4. And once again, Travis Outlaw, who I thought would play a big part in this series, shot poorly from the field, finishing 2-9. Credit Shane Battier with shutting down Outlaw - it's tough to make shots when you're worried about your eyes getting poked out.
As for Yao's offense, this was probably the first game in which we were able to constantly feed The Great Wall the ball without much trouble. The strength of Portland's defense on Yao had been their ability to make him receive passes from 10-15 feet from the basket, as well as their ability to double-team him. Yao didn't get much better position tonight, but he was able to free himself up for a lot of one-on-ones, and from there, he had a decent night from the field, finishing 8-16. But I think the fact that we finally got Yao the ball was a victory within itself - now he'll just have to work on getting it deeper on block.
Luis Scola didn't have a very good game tonight, but you knew it was going to happen. After his 21 points in Game 5, Portland wasn't about to leave him open as often as they did earlier. While this forced Luis out of his rhythm, it also allowed Yao to get the ball with much more ease, so at least Scola's ineffectiveness benefitted someone else in the process. He forced up a few shots tonight, and his jump shot wasn't there from the beginning. His defense on LaMarcus Aldridge was also pretty suspect, as Alrdidge was able to score 26 points. But looking ahead to Round 2, Scola will have a much better match up with Pau Gasol, someone who won't be able to hit the long two pointers like Aldridge could.
Aaron Brooks had a bounce-back game, scoring 13 points while dishing out 5 assists. He also hit one dagger of a three pointer in the fourth that all but secured the win. He was much smarter in the lane tonight than he was in Game 5, as he realized that he'd rather pass the ball out to a teammate than get his shot swatted by one of Portland's giants. Good game for Aaron, both offensively and defensively.
And kudos to Von Wafer for gutting out a bad back. He played 16 minutes and went 2-5 from the field. While that isn't exactly a spectacular statline, Von's presence on the court frees up space for the post players and driving guards, so it was important that he played tonight, whether he made a difference or not.
Quickly, I hope that Rick Adelman is planning on using Brent Barry in Round 2 against the Lakers. Why else did we sign a savvy playoff veteran? Isn't this supposed to be when he's the most valuable?
To sum up the series, I'd like to first point out that I was right in my "Rockets in 6" prediction. One win in Portland proved to be enough, as we went 3-0 on our home court. Our fans were spectacular, and they'll need to be out in full force when Kobe Bryant comes to town. As for the Rockets, they played some hard-nosed, physical basketball, and in the end, our defense was what won us the series. That, and our ability to make big shots at home. We were truly clutch when we needed to be, and I can't remember the last time that our city's nickname was merited.
The passion was there tonight more than it has been all series. The will to win, the want-to-win mentality - it was all there. Portland looked ready to win, but they didn't look ready to beat someone else in the process. They were going to play hard and give it their best shot to extend the series, but this battle-tested Rockets team knew how to take it up a notch and win in the absolute pinnacle of games. This was our most important contest in years, and we attacked it with everything that we had in us.
In regard to Blazer fans, you guys are the best. I don't just say that because I have to, or because it makes me look classy. You represented your fanbase with class and intelligence, something that many opposing fans simply don't have. I have yet to see a group of fans as loyal, dedicated, and level-headed as you fellas (other than ourselves, of course). You've got a great blog to follow in BE, and a young team on the rise with a great coach to follow as well. Best of luck to you in the future, and to put it bluntly, thanks for the massive increase in page hits. But seriously, the comments from everyone made this a much better experience, and I doubt we'll get that same kind of atmosphere in Round 2. There are many people I dislike in this world, and the majority of them are Laker fans.
Jump to see my Game 6 Toyota Center adventure, and if you don't feel like doing so, then get ready for Round 2, and BEAT LA!
I had an interesting night at Toyota Center. It involved a lot of screaming, a lot of moving, and some very familiar faces. I practically lost my voice by the end of the game - it was great. Here's what my night was like:
First Quarter: Section 415. This is where my friend Jonathan and I were to start the game, and it was one hell of an introduction by P.A. announcer John Paul Stevenson.
Second Quarter: Section 118. These served to be some of the nicest seats that I have ever been privileged enough to sit in at Toyota. We were about ten rows up, and most importantly, we were about four seats over from our resident boy genius...
Rockets GM Daryl Morey and a friend were directly to our left. They gave each other some pretty awkward, two-handed high fives after great plays, and Daryl throws a mean first pump. I have to hand it to him - anyone who thinks he isn't a rowdy basketball fan like the rest of us is dead wrong. Daryl was the first guy up on his feet after every great play.
TNT sideline reporter Craig Sager! Who else would wear a ridiculous turquoise suit? Sadly enough, Gene Peterson was behind us as well, but I didn't realize it until we had moved seats after halftime. Shucks.
Third Quarter-Fourth Quarter: Section 112. These seats provided a perfect view of the second half, and by the end of the game, we had enough foot room to jump around like idiots. Clutch shot off a few streamers, and everyone went nuts.
Yao Ming and Dikembe Mutombo exiting the floor to go celebrate in the locker room.
Kevin Eschenfelder and former Rockets coach Don Chaney! It took about a minute of begging before Don finally cracked a smile. Kevin, on the other hand, was quite jubilant. But Don was emotional as well - he wiped his eyes a few times before looking up at my obnoxious display.
National Anthem singer Billy Cook! Billy was walking outside of Toyota after the game when Jonathan and I spotted him. He was as happy as anyone else and gladly struck a pose for a few pictures. I'm not sure exactly how "awesome" this is, as I have never heard of Billy Cook in my life. Oddly enough, someone who was with him took a picture of us. Maybe they knew I was from The Dream Shake!
Well, that's about it. Fantastic night indeed.