PORTLAND, Ore. - After a fast start to the season, the Trail Blazers went through a lull after the All-Star break. Wins became harder to come by, and there was concern Portland might have to fight to even make the playoffs.
The team says that experience is helping Portland now in a hard-fought first-round with the Houston Rockets. The Blazers are up 3-1 as the series heads back to Houston for Game 5 on Wednesday night.
Portland got off to a surprising 24-5 start this season, the best record in the NBA at the time, led by All-Stars LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard. But they stumbled with a 4-9 late-season downturn capped by a 95-85 loss at Orlando on March 25. The Blazers regrouped with a five-game winning streak going into the post-season.
"We had a couple of team meetings and got the ship back going in the right direction," Lillard said. "I think that because we went through that, it made us closer as a team, made us tough as a team and prepared us for times like now."
While Portland now has a distinct advantage in the series with Houston, it hasn't been easy. Three of the four playoff games have gone to overtime. Sunday night's 123-120 OT victory by the Blazers was the first win for the home team in the series.
"We're at our best when our backs are against the wall, have something to prove — whatever phrase you want to use," Blazers coach Terry Stotts said. "We have a determination to us. We know what we have to do, and most times, we do it."
It's Houston now that has its back to the wall.
"We've gotta stay positive right now," Dwight Howard said about being on the brink of elimination. "We can't hang our heads and we can't quit. We're not going to allow negativity to seep into our minds."
Reserve guard Jeremy Lin said: "Not much room for error now. I think everyone has to come out and play like our season depends on it. Because it does."
Portland returned to the playoffs this season after a two-year drought. The team hasn't advanced to the second round since 2000.
The Blazers won Game 1 in Houston 122-120 in overtime, paced by Aldridge with 46 points. Aldridge had 43 in Portland's 112-105 win in the next game before the series shifted to the Moda Center. James Harden scored 37 points in the Rockets' 121-116 overtime victory on Friday before the Blazers won at home Sunday.
"No one gave us a chance coming into the playoffs so we had that chip on our shoulder," guard Wesley Matthews said. "We just continue to build on that chip."
Only eight NBA teams have rebounded from a 3-1 deficit in a best-of-seven playoff series to advance. The last was the Phoenix Suns, who came back to beat the Los Angeles Lakers in a first-round series in 2006.
"We feel like just as easily as we're down 1-3 we could be up 3-1. A couple of plays here and there, and it can all change," Houston forward Chandler Parsons said. "We're excited to go back to Houston and play at home. We fully expect to come back here. This is it. Win or go home, and we're not trying to go home."
The Blazers were stung Monday morning by the death of Jack Ramsay, the beloved coach who led Portland to its lone NBA championship in 1977. Ramsay died in Naples, Florida, at the age of 89 after a long battle with cancer.
"In leading this franchise to its first NBA Championship, Dr. Jack set a standard of excellence for his players, coaches and all who crossed his path," Blazers owner Paul Allen said in a statement. "He was that rarest of men with a unique style that was inspirational and motivational about basketball and life itself. We loved him as a coach, as a broadcaster and as a human being."
The No. 77 hangs in the rafters at the Moda Center in tribute to the Hall of Fame coach.
Even the current players were touched by Ramsay: "The basketball & Blazers family lost a great person. RIP Dr. Jack Ramsay, you'll be missed. I had the honour to meet & talk to him," forward Nicolas Batum posted to Twitter.