HOUSTON Notes from the Portland-Houston first-round playoff series, which resumes Friday night with Game 6 at the Moda Center
As he met with media after Houston's 108-98 victory over Portland Wednesday night at the Toyota Center, Kevin McHale looked as relaxed as he has been since before the series opener.
McHale brought a smile and a cup that probably held an adult beverage as he hobbled to the podium, knowing the Rockets' chances to move to the second round would live for at least another game.
And that McHale, in his third season at the Houston helm, will hold on to his job for at least a couple of more days.
The Rockets hold an option on McHale's contract for next season. Word is if they don't advance, he's gone.
Seems odd after guiding the Rockets to 54 wins in the tough Western Conference that McHale's job security is so precarious, but maybe that's the way the coaching profession is today.
A Houston radio talk show host noted before Wednesday's game that the series features four NBA stars -- Portland's LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard and Houston's Dwight Howard and James Harden -- and that three of them were having excellent series. The fourth, Harden, was not, which explains more than anything why the Trail Blazers are on the precipice of winning the series.
The radio voice might be on to something.
Though Aldridge's Wednesday performance was decidedly sub-par, he had been the toast of the NBA playoffs through four games, averaging a league-high 35.3 points to go with 11.5 rebounds. Lillard's initial playoff run has been spectacular, with averages of 25.6 points, 7.4 assists and 6.4 rebounds.
Howard has done all he can to keep Houston alive, averaging 26.0 points, 14.2 rebounds and 3.0 blocked shots.
Then there is Harden, who is averaging 24.2 points mostly because he has gunned up an average of nearly 24 shots per game. The Rockets' shooting guard has been firing mostly blanks, making only 41 of 118 attempts from the field (.348), including a shameful 12 of 48 (.250) from 3-point range.
The Rockets are left to make excuses for Harden, who has not owned up to his failures during media availabilities, throwing out cliches such as, "We just have to get more stops."
"James is our leading scorer, our go-to guy," McHale said after Harden went scored 17 points on 5-for-15 shooting with seven assists in 41 minutes in Game 5. "He did a nice job of letting the game just kind of happen. We'll get him the ball quite a bit in Portland."
Harden made two big baskets down the stretch -- a reverse layup and a 3-pointer, his only one of the game in seven attempts. His confidence in his perimeter shot is shaken, though a hot hand early in Friday night's game could change that.
"We have multiple guys who can step up, but James is one of our leaders," teammate Chandler Parsons said. "He has been great for us all year long. He just has to stay confident and stay aggressive."
McHale noted after Game 5 that the Rockets missed "some dead-point-blank layups. Chandler got some real chippies that didn't go in."
Parsons, who scored 20 points but was only 8 for 22 from the field, was asked by a reporter about it afterward.
"The good thing is, I got to the rim, but I missed five or six layups that I have to make," he said, adding with a grin, "Thanks for bringing it up."
Houston's starting point guard, Patrick Beverley, played 21 minutes despite missing Tuesday's practice with a flu bug. Beverley had five points and two assists with no turnovers.
"Patrick has a 101 (degree) temperature right now," McHale said. "The kid's tough as nails. He's been a rag doll all day long. He played on heart alone tonight. He had nothing, but he said, 'I'll give you what I've got.' "
With Beverley's limitations, Houston's other point guard, Jeremy Lin, picked a good time to have his best game of the series. Lin scored 21 points, knocking down 9 of 15 shots, including a pair of big 3-pointers as the shot clock was about to expire.
"We needed Jeremy tonight," McHale said. "He broke pressure down, got in the paint, made a couple of floaters. When (the Blazers) are putting that much pressure on, you can't run the offense -- you just have to break people down. We did a better job of moving the ball more and playing inside-out with Dwight."
"I tried to be aggressive," Lin said. "I felt like I needed to be more of a spark for the team. I haven't done a great job of that in this series. I got into a little bit of a rhythm, knocked down a couple of 3's in the second quarter and decided to ride it out."
On the 3's that just beat the shot clock, Lin said with a smile, "at that point, you're drawing up a prayer."
Portland shot .521 in the first quarter and .409 after that, finishing at .434. Houston's defense seemed to get better as the game wore on.
"We limited their blow-bys," McHale said. "They weren't just coming downhill on us. We did a better job of containing their action. it came down to one-on-one defense, and we did a better job on that."
Jefferson High grad Terrence Jones, who has been coming off the bench for the Rockets since Game 2, had his best game of the series. The 6-9 second-year power forward collected eight points, three rebounds and three assists in 22 minutes while making 4 of 5 shots from the field.
"T.J. is playing a lot better," McHale said. "He's warming up in the series."
McHale has chosen to go big to try to contain Aldridge, starting 7-foot Omer Asik alongside the 6-11 Howard. Asik had 15 rebounds, including six on the offensive end, and helped hold Aldridge to eight points and eight rebounds.
"Omer played a great game defensively," McHale said. "He's a real pro. He does his job all the time. When you're playing against a guy like Aldridge, you have to be smart. He moves around and makes you guard a lot of different angles."
Portland fans probably don't want to hear it, but ex-Blazer (and ex-Rocket) Mario Elie spoke to the Houston players before Game 5. Elie, who played for the Blazers during the 1992-93 season, spent five years in Houston and was a key reserve on the Rockets' NBA championship clubs of '94 and '95.
"Mario still has a lot of 'Rockets' in that bloodstream," McHale said. "He was telling them the approach you have to take. He said, 'You can't worry about being down 1-3. You try to win every possession.' It was a good speech. Mario was very fired up, and the guys enjoyed it. It was nice to have him there."
Parsons said the Rockets have to be able to sustain leads as they did Wednesday night if they are to win Game 6.
"We've learned the hard way this series," he said. "We've had multiple leads that we've given up. (The Blazers) are a tough team. They're not going to ever throw in the towel. They have guys who can hit key shots.
"The series is so evenly matched, it's going to be a dogfight from here on out. No one wants the season to end. We have to stay together and continue to believe in each other and do what we did tonight."
NOTES: Portland's 98 points was the first time a team has failed to reach triple digits in any of the nine regular- and post-season games between the Blazers and Rockets this season. Portland never led in Game 5 after the first 8 1/2 minutes, falling behind by 17 points in the second quarter. The Blazers trimmed the margin to one point late in the game, but that was as close as they were to get.