Before Game 5, the playoff series was not going well for the Rockets. The Blazers won two games in Houston to begin the series, and although Houston was able to win Game 3, the Blazers took Game 4 in a dramatic overtime win that crushed many Rockets fans. Looking back on the first four games, it became clear the series would be contentious—each was tight and within seven points. However, Houston was able to dramatically improve, to win Game 5 by 10 points against the Blazers. So, what was different?
Asik and Howard seal LaMarcus Aldridge’s movement
Coming into the series, the Rockets expected LaMarcus Aldridge to score many points for the Blazers, but they did not expect him to dominate the way he has. In both Games 1 and 2, Aldridge was phenomenal, and scored 46 and 43 points respectively. In addition, Aldridge’s shooting percentage averaged 59.5% during these two games, shooting almost as if there wasn’t a defense to guard him at all. Terrence Jones, the Rocket’s initial starting power forward, could not even hope to stop Aldridge from shooting mid-range jump shots and his killer turnaround fadeaway shots. This was evident in the sheer number of shot attempts Aldridge was able to take – 31 in Game 1 and 28 in Game 2. These numbers indicate that the Blazers’ head coach, Terry Stotts, knew that Terrence Jones could not possibly guard Aldridge, implementing a strategy that gave Aldrige the ball again and again.
After losing both of the first two games to the Blazers, Rockets’ head coach Kevin McHale tried something new; replacing Terrence Jones with Omer Asik. In the beginning of pre-Season, Asik and Dwight Howard’s near-non-existent team chemistry forced coach McHale to promote Jones to the starting power forward role. However, with Jones struggling against preventing Aldridge from scoring, coach McHale had to implement a new starting lineup.
Numerous fan websites and media outlets questioned whether Asik would be able to play together with Howard against a good team like the Portland Trail Blazers. However, Asik answered triumphantly, as he and Howard double-teamed Aldridge in Game 3 limiting him to just 8 points from 22 shots for a shooting percentage of 36.4%, well below his average. In Game 5, Howard and Asik guarded Aldridge even better and limited him to eight points from only 12 shots. Asik forced Aldridge to take tough, long fade-away jump shots, limiting Aldridge’s contribution to mere mortal levels, opening up a path for a Rockets victory. This more effective, dynamic defense against Aldridge was a key factor for the Rockets’ win in Game 5.
‘Linsanity’ to the rescue??
It has been a long time since ‘Linsanity’ overran the NBA. After leaving the Knicks, Lin signed a giant contract with the Houston Rockets where he became the starting point guard before struggling initially and being demoted to sixth, even with an increased shooting percentage from last year. Despite Lin’s relatively better performance during the regular season, he has struggled in the playoffs. In Games 2 and 4, Lin only scored 5 and 4 points respectively, and his shooting percentage was an average of 18.3% in those two games.
Although Patrick Beverly held down his position as the Rockets’ new point guard, Lin’s role as a sixth man during the regular season was invaluable, and he left the the Rockets high and dry during the past four playoff games. Without his off-the-bench support, the Rockets lost Games 1, 2, and 4 and were on the edge against the Blazers in the playoffs.
In the face of his struggle, Lin looked like he had a different mentality in Game 5. He attacked the rim with more confidence and participated in the Rockets’ offense more energetically. In the beginning of the fourth quarter, when James Harden failed to make even one shot in the second half, Lin was given the opportunity to prove himself. In previous fourth quarters, Lin usually passed the ball to his teammates without shooting much himself, but in Game 5 he took charge and helped the Rockets increase their lead over the surging Blazers. By the night’s end, Lin had scored a team-second-high 21 points, hitting 9 of 15 shots (60%) and bringing ‘Linsanity’ back to H-town in the form of a 108-98 win.
Did Dwight Howard improve after working with Legend Hakeem Olajuwon?
Dwight Howard is undisputably one of the best centers in the NBA, and he led his team to the fourth seed in the Western Conference this season. He has also been extremely consistent throughout this playoff series, scoring an average of 27 points during the past four games. In Game 5, he scored only 22 points, which was lower than his average, but overall he was a more effective player. Game 5 saw Howard give up only 1 turnover—compare that to the 4 turnovers in Game 3 and the 6 turnovers in Game 2.
Additionally, Howard was able to better facilitate gameplay as a team leader, keeping the ball moving and keeping the momentum on the Rockets’ side. In this game in particular, his post moves improved dramatically and his footsteps were balanced. Perhaps this had to do with Howard’s pre-game private session with Hall of Famer Hakeem Olajuwon. Olajuwon worked to fix many of Howard’s mechanical errors, focusing on post-moves that would come to dominate Howard’s improved performance in Game 5. With Howard’s posting-up improving, its only right that the Rockets follow right behind. Whether Dwight Howard can dominate under the basket will determine if the Rockets are an NBA title contender or not.
Many Houston fans were scared after the Rockets lost to the Blazers in overtime in Game 4 (120-123). Fortunately, the Rockets in Game 5 looked like a different team compared to their past few playoff games. They guarded the Blazer’s All Star power forward LaMarcus Aldridge tenaciously, Jeremy Lin got into his rhythm and scored 21 points, and Howard’s post moves were powerful against the Blazers. These key ingredients finally came together in assisting the Rockets to win Game 5 and forcing the Blazers to a Game 6.