PORTLAND, Ore. -- With the Rockets and Blazers tied and the clock under 35 seconds in Friday's Game 3 in Portland, the Rockets had the ball for the game’s penultimate shot.
James Harden took a high screen from Dwight Howard, and another, and another still.
Throughout, Nicolas Batum stayed on Harden's hip, fighting through the screens and steering the bearded guard into trouble. Dorell Wright tipped the ball loose, and Williams dove on it. But Houston’s Jeremy Lin careened in just a half second later, corralled the ball and threw a wild overhead pass to rookie Troy Daniels, wide open and all alone on the opposite wing.
Daniels, in his sixth NBA game and just weeks removed from playing in the D-League, cashed in.
It was a broken play, and a perfect one. In a series with two overtime games in its first three, it was the sort of play that has a way of seeming inevitable, a manifestation of how fickle the bounces can be and how razor thin the margin between two teams. Batum had played it perfectly. Williams had all but recovered the loose ball.
But the result was three points the other way.
The Blazers entered the NBA's second season four months removed from playing their best ball and with a reputation as a high-variance, eminently beatable team.
For as much as they had to prove that they could adjust to the intense focus of playoff defenses, that their stars could raise their games to match the stakes, and that they could get the crucial stops in crucial games, the playoffs are new territory for an overachieving team.
Mostly, they were up to the task. Yes, they were operating on thin margins and eking out close victories, but Portland showed it is capable of putting forth better-than-expected performances in the most meaningful games. LaMarcus Aldridge dismantled the Houston defense from outside, and crucially, from inside, and Damian Lillard proved that his preternatural confidence would extend into the playoffs with an impressive debut.
After a 121-116 loss at home on Friday night, the Blazers are forced to learn anew.
This series settled into itself for Game 3. The Rockets responded to Aldridge's two-game rampage by starting Omer Asik in place of Terrence Jones, and Asik spent his time hounding Aldridge before and after every catch. Houston also, as many predicted, made more extensive use of Dwight Howard-James Harden pick-and-rolls, stretching Portland's defenses in ways the Rockets hadn't over the first two games. A series that had been about Aldridge's otherworldly scoring became about Houston's ability to counterpunch. And though the Blazers made enough runs to send the game into overtime, the Rockets dictated the competition for much of the game.
Early, with Asik blanketing Aldridge, the Blazers turned to Lillard and an aggressive Batum; with Aldridge on the bench in the first half, Portland took a lead with a 16-0 run.
Later in the game, when the Rockets began trapping Lillard off of screens, the Blazers were left with open looks from beyond the arc. A nine-point Mo Williams barrage brought them back from double-digits and shook the team out of a bizarre hesitance to pull the trigger from deep. Always a step behind, but always just quick enough to make it up, the Blazers fought their way into overtime.
Now, the Blazers face an interesting growth challenge. They remain in the catbird seat, still in possession of home-court advantage, but they lead the series by a margin of only four points. The evidence suggests these teams have played to a standstill, but Portland's victories still define the series. The Blazers now face the task of investing in their successes and moving on from this loss, though the difference is almost indistinguishable.
In a sense, they have to learn to make meaningless the types of plays that felt so meaningful for the first two games.
That's life on the knife's edge of the playoffs. In the first two games, the with the bounces going the Blazers' way, they became a changed team, a team ready to take a step forward, with a bona fide superstar and a point guard ready for the bright lights. Their job going forward is to invest in that perception until it becomes a reality, all while treating Friday night as if it were just a bad bounce.