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Scream And Shout

Rockets' resilience on display as club sends series back to Portland

HOUSTON - This is resilience: Jeremy Lin, fresh off a few nights of fitful sleep and intense frustration following a rocky Game 4 performance, bouncing back and delivering the best playoff game of his young career.

This is growth: The Houston Rockets, having found themselves on the receiving end of a flurry of stomach punch losses due in large part to some shaky crunch time execution, responding with a flawless final few minutes on the defensive end, shutting out Portland over the last 3:38 of Game 5 and in the process ensuring a return trip to the Pacific Northwest for Game 6.

This is belief: Chandler Parsons, thanking the raucous Toyota Center faithful resplendently decked out in their Clutch City t-shirts, before bidding farewell with a ‘See you on Sunday,’ bit of hopeful foreshadowing.

Each of those attributes served the Rockets well Wednesday night during their initial foray into win-or-go-home territory. The day before, Dwight Howard had promised that his team would respond to having its back firmly pressed against the wall by fighting its way out. He spoke of the difficulty of the road that lies ahead and of a collective desire to embrace the challenge. Little could he have known then that his club would be forced to play the majority of Game 5’s opening half without him due to the plague of fouls that severely limited his playing time during the contest’s early stages. While he could only sit and watch, others would have to step forth and help set the tone. Further complicating matters was the fact that fellow starter Patrick Beverley was still fighting the effects of a fever that had climbed to as high as 103 on Tuesday. Ideal circumstances for saving a season this was not.

Into that void stepped Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik. The former was nothing short of fabulous in the early going, spearheading Houston’s offense with his ability to penetrate into the teeth of the Portland defense, draw defenders, and then dish to his teammates for quality scoring chances. By the time the first quarter had come to a close, he already had four assists to his name. He would not record another the rest of the way. It didn’t matter. Because his own personal scoring exploits were set to take over from there.

For prolonged periods in each of the game’s final three quarters, Lin shouldered significant portions of the Rockets’ offense. On multiple occasions he hit exceedingly high degree of difficulty shots to beat the shot clock, subsiding some of the wind in the Blazers’ sails as they attempted to rally all the way back from what was once a 17-point deficit. Always a player who feeds upon confidence and rhythm, Lin found a groove that fit so well it prompted him to unleash a primal roar when one particularly bodacious shot dropped through the hoop – all this on the heels of days of restless nights and self-castigation for a Game 4 performance that had been a personal nightmare. As always, Lin leaned on his faith to find peace amid the storm raging inside his mind.

“Game 4 was definitely a rough one,” he admitted, following his 21-point performance Wednesday night. “I didn’t really sleep much that night. Over the last couple days I just tried to keep reminding myself to stay faithful and trust in God’s perfect plan.

“I just tried to be aggressive. I felt like I needed to be more of a spark for the team. I hadn’t done a great job of that in this series so I just tried to come out as aggressive as I can be.”

All Asik did, meanwhile, was hold down the fort while Howard battled first half foul trouble before once again teaming up with the All-Star center in the second half to spark the Rockets’ best 48-minute defensive effort of the series. Emblematic of that endeavor was the fact that their partnership helped limit LaMarcus Aldridge to a mere 8 points on 3-of-12 shooting – borderline unfathomable numbers given that Portland’s All-Star power forward had erupted for more than 40 points in each of his past two visits to Toyota Center. Asik was a defending and rebounding powerhouse Wednesday night, pushing Aldridge off his preferred spots and never allowing him anything easy. And when Asik fouled out in the fourth quarter, Howard took over the assignment from there and absolutely aced it the rest of the way, blocking back-to-back Aldridge shots during the game’s final two minutes as the Rockets put the finishing touches on a victory they had to have.

This is only just the first step, of course. Wednesday’s win was nice, but it only puts Houston a third of the way closer to where it needs to be in order to move on and continue its championship pursuit. Two more such efforts will be required of the Rockets, and the remaining roadblocks likely only get higher and more pronounced from here. Portland promises to be rocking Friday night. Adjustments will be made. But this is the essence of playoff basketball. It takes talent to get here, and then a seemingly endless reservoir of resilience, belief and growth to continue moving forward.

The Rockets dipped into that well early and often Wednesday and its life giving waters saved their season. What awaits them demands no less. James Harden must bounce back and build upon the strong finish that helped make up for his sluggish start. Patrick Beverley needs to rest and recover. And above all else the team must maintain its faith and belief in one another, especially when crunch time comes and shines its white-hot spotlight on each club’s execution and attention to detail.

“We’re confident going back to Portland,” Parsons said following Houston’s 108-98 win. “We felt like we let (Game 4) slip away there. We’re not hanging our heads at all. We believe in each other and in that entire locker room nobody thinks this series is over. We have a chance to do something special here. It’s going to be a dogfight Friday night, it’s going to be fun and it’s going to be an awesome environment. We’ve got to go out there and execute. By now the scouting report is out the window. You just have to go out there and get it done.”