Rockets win in OT, and it's a series again
If Troy Daniels never makes another shot in the NBA, he has already etched his name on the Houston Rockets' list of unforgettable figures.
Two weeks ago, the 6-4 guard out of Virginia Commonwealth played a game for the Rio Grande Valley Vipers of the NBA Development League.
On Friday night, with the weight of Houston's basketball universe on his shoulders, Daniels knocked down the 3-point shot that breathed life back into the Rockets in their playoff series with the Trail Blazers.
Daniels' truculent triple, with 11.0 seconds left in overtime and the score tied 116-116, propelled Houston to a 121-116 victory at the Moda Center.
Had the Rockets lost, they'd have trailed Portland 3-0 and been all but dead and buried in the best-of-seven first-round series. Now, they are down 2-1 going into Sunday night's Game 4, with a chance to return to Houston for Wednesday's Game 5 all knotted at two apiece.
"A couple of weeks ago, he was in the D-league," Rockets guard James Harden said. "Now, he saved our season."
Daniels, waived by Charlotte as an undrafted free agent in October, was signed by the Rockets a week later. He spent most of the season in the D-League, playing in a game for the Vipers as recently as April 12. Daniels played five late regular-season games for the Rockets, starting and scoring 22 points in their meaningless finale at New Orleans. He didn't play in Portland's two playoff victories at Houston.
On Friday night, he was the toast of H-Town.
"It's a dream come true," said Daniels, who scored nine points while making 3 of 6 shots, all from beyond the arc, in his 20 minutes. "Three or four weeks ago, I was looking at these guys on TV. Now they're teammates."
Daniels said he'd made "a couple of game-winners in high school. Not in college, but I have one now in the NBA."
"This is a little different than high school," Harden observed.
Daniels' game-winning basket came after a broken play in which Harden, dribbling time off the clock with Nicolas Batum defending him, had the ball knocked away by Portland's Dorell Wright. After a scramble, Portland's Mo Williams picked it up, was tripped up by Harden, and Houston's Jeremy Lin wound up with the ball. He drove toward the basket and kicked it out to Daniels spotted up behind the 3-point line. Splat.
"He raised up on that last one like he'd been there before," said Portland's Damian Lillard, who had a sensational game with 30 points, six rebounds and six assists. "But you live with him shooting that shot over James Harden."
After a timeout, Portland got the ball to Batum, whose 3-point shot from the top bounced off the iron. Harden was fouled and made a pair of foul shots with 1.1 seconds left to provide the final margin.
"Nic got a clean look," Portland coach Terry Stotts said. "He was 4 for 8 (from 3-point range) before that, so it was good execution. Mo set a good screen, Nic made a good read and had a good look."
Houston coach Kevin McHale said he used Daniels for a couple of reasons.
"He's not afraid to shoot it," McHale said. "He knows he can shoot it. And he's a tough kid. He's going to get his nose dirty, and we needed to get some nose-dirty plays.
"He's not the biggest guy, but he's tough. At this time of year, tough makes up for a lot of other stuff."
As integral to Houston's victory as anything was its defense on LaMarcus Aldridge, who had blown the Rockets apart with 46 and 43 points in the first two games. McHale went big, starting 7-footer Omer Asik in place of 6-9 Terrence Jones alongside 6-11 Dwight Howard on the Houston front line.
Asik and Howard traded off defending Aldridge, holding the Blazers' All-Star power forward to four points on 2-for-8 shooting in the first half. Aldridge finished with 23 points and 10 rebounds but was only 8 for 22 from the field, missing all three shots he attempted in overtime.
"They were more aggressive than they had been the first two games," Aldridge said. "They made it a point to take me out and not let me get up a lot of shots and not find a good rhythm."
Said McHale: "We tried a bunch of stuff. We're trying to keep bodies on him. Omer did a very good job on him, and Dwight did a very good job on him. Hey, the guy's a tough cover. If you make a mistake, he makes you pay. Some of the shots he made (Wednesday night), there was nothing you can do about that. We just have to keep trying to make him take tough shots."
The Rockets were much scrappier than they had been in the first two games. They shot only .429 from the field, but weren't bad from 3-point range (12 for 31, .387), made their free throws (19 for 22), won the rebound battle 53-47, scored 56 points in the paint and committed only nine turnovers.
"We're not a fine-tuned machine right now, but we went out and played hard," McHale said. "We missed a lot of chippies around the rim, but we kept battling and found a way to win."
The Rockets "played a great game," Lillard said. "Both teams knew what was at stake. They came out and beat us. Our team did a great job of making it a game. We played well ourselves. It came down to them making one more play than we did."
Houston was leading 96-85 with eight minutes to play when Williams buried a 3, was fouled and converted the free throw for a four-point play to draw the Blazers to within 96-89. Gradually, the Blazers reeled the Rockets in, taking the lead at 107-106 on a Lillard driving layup with 1:59 remaining in regulation.
Houston regained the lead at 110-107 and blew a golden opportunity when Lin missed a breakaway layup with 46 seconds left. Batum then sank a 3 at the other end to tie it at 110-110 with 34 seconds to go.
After a Harden miss, the Blazers rebounded and worked it to Lillard, who missed a step-back 3. The Rockets rebounded, calling timeout with 3.3 seconds left.
Harden's desperation attempt from midcourt was off, and it was on to overtime.
Portland made only 2 of 8 shots in the extra session. Houston was 3 for 7. One of those was Daniels' dagger.
"We wanted to get it done," Lillard said. "It was a huge game for us, and we didn't get it done. It would be a problem if we lost because of effort or we weren't focused and weren't taking care of business. That wasn't the case.
"It's the playoffs. Nobody said we were going to come out and sweep them. We were lucky enough to win two games in Houston. This was one game. We just have to move on from it."
Harden said afterward that the pressure is now on the Blazers. Aldridge disagrees.
"We're still in control," he said. The pressure's still on (the Rockets). They lost two at home. Now they're trying to come here and take it to us.
"They played like they're desperate, like they needed to win, like they didn't want their season to end. They had guys who hadn't played all season make big shots. They came in and found a way."
NOTES: The road team has won all three games in the series, of which two have gone to overtime. Harden snapped of his slump -- sort of. Houston's All-Star shooting guard collected 37 points to go with nine rebounds and six assists but was only 13 for 35 from the field, including 3 for 11 from 3-point range. In the series, Harden is shooting 27 for 82 (.329) and 8 for 30 (.267) on 3-point attempts. Aldridge is averaging 37.3 points and 12.0 rebounds in the series. Howard, who had 24 points and 14 rebounds, is averaging 27.7 points and 14.3 boards. Lillard is the first Blazer with 30 points, six rebounds and six assists in a playoff game since guard Terry Porter in 1992. Houston had made only 11 of 51 casts from beyond the arc in the first two games.
Batum finished with 26 points, nine rebounds, five assists and three steals in 49 minutes. Williams came off the bench for 17 points, four assists and four rebounds in 36 minutes. Portland's Wesley Matthews, who fouled out with 2:14 left in overtime, scored five points on 2-for-7 shooting. He is shooting .353 from the field, including 3 for 17 from 3-point range, in the series. McHale told the media before the game he wanted to see more hustle from his players. "We think we're running," he said. "We're at a nice solid, fast jog. We're not sprinting." McHale was also asked pregame about the Rockets' frustration level. "Everybody's frustrated," McHale said. "If you get your ass kicked and aren't frustrated, you're in the wrong business."