The strategy seems simple enough: Pass the ball to Yao Ming.
HOUSTON — The strategy seems simple enough: Pass the ball to Yao Ming.
Once again, the Portland Trail Blazers shut off that option for the Houston Rockets and stayed alive in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs.
Yao scored 15 points — but only two in the fourth quarter — in the Blazers' 88-77 win on Tuesday night to force Game 6 on Thursday night in Houston. The 7-foot-6 Yao, a seven-time All-Star and Houston's leading scorer at 19.7 points per game during the regular season, took only four shots in the last quarter and the Rockets were outscored 24-15.
The Blazers have mostly defended Yao by putting either Joel Przybilla or Greg Oden in front of him and then double-teaming whenever he touches the ball. Yao found a way to score 24 points in Game 1 and 21 in Game 4, leaving the game plan for Game 6 fairly obvious — at least to him.
"Get the ball inside. Get the ball inside. Get the ball inside," he said. "That's it."
With Yao constantly surrounded, Luis Scola is the Rockets' leading scorer in the series, averaging 17.6 points per game. Portland's defense on Yao has opened up mid-range jumpers for Houston's power forward and Scola is shooting 58.5 percent from the field.
Scola scored 21 in Game 5, but had only one basket in the fourth quarter. The Rockets went 7-for-20 from the field in the final quarter and the Blazers maintained a comfortable lead in the closing minutes by going 10-for-12 from the free-throw line.
The Rockets led 68-64 with under nine minutes to go before Portland launched a 15-0 run.
"We got them where we wanted, we got up by four, but they just played better from then on," Scola said. "They're a pretty good team. We keep saying that. We knew before the game it was not going to be easy and we know that now."
LaMarcus Aldridge scored 25 points for Portland in Game 5, complementing Brandon Roy's 25. Aldridge scored 27 in the Blazers' other win in the series and has averaged only 13 points in his team's three losses.
Aldridge said after the Blazers' 107-103 win in Game 2 that he stopped overanalyzing how the Rockets were trying to guard him and "just played basketball." He did the same thing in Game 5 with similar results.
"We can't talk about it anymore, we just got to go out and play and that was my whole mental state," he said.
"Just to go out and leave it all out on the line, try and make all those plays, do those things I didn't do last game. If I did those things, then we should win."
Aldridge didn't seem bothered by a sore right elbow that kept him out of Monday's practice. Roy also seemed OK after taking intravenous fluids before Game 5 to combat flu-like symptoms.
Both teams were practicing late in the afternoon in Houston on Wednesday.
The Blazers have lost 12 of their last 13 games at the Toyota Center and 10 of their last 11 road playoff games overall. They're trying to become just the ninth team in NBA history — out of 185 — to rally from a 3-1 deficit and win a seven-game playoff series.
The Rockets, meanwhile, have won eight straight home games, but are still trying to advance out of the first round for the first time since 1997. They've lost Game 6s in each of the last two seasons, both to Utah.
So who should feel more nerves? Depends on who you ask.
"Hopefully we put the pressure back on them," said Roy, averaging 27.6 points in the series. "We have another chance to play with our backs against the wall. We're going to go out there and play loose and hopefully we can play like we did (on Tuesday)."
After topping 100 points in the first two games, Houston has averaged only 84 points in the last three. The Rockets shot 39.8 percent from the field in Game 4, but still managed to win.
"I'm not concerned. We'll play better at home," Rockets' forward Shane Battier said after Game 5.
"We're excited. It's not a pressure situation."