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April 23, 2011
Playoff Prospectus
A Most Improbable Comeback

by Kevin Pelton

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at Portland 84, Dallas 82 (Series tied 2-2)
Pace: 81.4
Offensive Ratings: Portland 105.3, Dallas 98.9

PORTLAND - How do you analyze a miracle?

Replay the fourth quarter of Saturday's Game Four between the Dallas Mavericks and the Portland Trail Blazers a thousand times and the Mavericks win 999 of them. Teams don't come back from 18-point deficits, especially when the entire reason they trail so badly is because they cannot make a shot to save their life. To their--our--delight, this was the one exception in a thousand, as Brandon Roy unexpectedly came alive to lead the Blazers to a victory they desperately needed.

Make no mistake: With a minute left in the third quarters, Portland's postseason hopes were fading quickly. The Blazers trailed by 23 points in a game that would have dropped them behind in the series 3-1 with a long trip to Dallas for Game Five on Monday looming. Realistically, Portland was finished with a loss, and I'm sure I wasn't the only writer on press row preparing to eulogize the season.

For three quarters, this game was almost so bad it was almost unwatchable. The teams combined for 12 turnovers in the first quarter alone and both shot worse than 40 percent in the first half. After letting the two teams hack each other into submission before halftime, the referees decided to even things out by calling ticky-tack fouls early in the third quarter. The officiating contributed to the frustration that fueled a confrontation between LaMarcus Aldridge and Tyson Chandler during the second quarter.

During the third quarter, the Blazers' shooting was painful to watch. Portland got OK looks, yet missed its first 15 attempts after halftime. At some point, as Nate McMillan observed after the game, all the bricks caused the team to drop its head and stop defending. Able to get whatever they wanted on offense, the Mavericks got going and made half their threes and two-thirds of their attempts inside the arc. Their lead peaked at 23 points on two occasions late in the third quarter. When Roy finished the period with a three-pointer that I described for ESPN as taunting disappointed Blazers fans, it seemed a prelude to a comeback of some sort, but presumably the kind that would serve only to make the final score respectable.

What we didn't know--what we couldn't know--was that for 12 minutes of basketball, Roy would hop in the time machine and travel back to 2009, when he was an unstoppable offensive force. We saw bits and pieces of this on Thursday night, when Roy scored 16 points and played as well as he had since returning from double knee surgery to try to relieve the pain in which he was playing. But this was vintage Roy, the whole thing. In fact, I'm not sure he's ever played as well in a quarter as he did down the stretch today.

With little margin for error, Roy was almost perfect. He missed two shots, both threes, but made eight more and consistently chose correctly between shooting or finding an open teammate. It's a testament to how well Roy was locked in as a ballhandler that, with him running the offense essentially the entire quarter, Portland matched Dallas' Game Two feat of going the fourth period without a single turnover.

Roy's shot making, meanwhile, speaks for itself. After beating defenders off the dribble, he was either pulling up for the midrange jumpers that were once a trademark or contorting his body to finish at the rim. The one three-pointer Roy made during the comeback was a doozy--he was fouled and completed a four-point play that tied the game at 82 with just over a minute left.

At some point, the Blazers' comeback shifted all the pressure to the Mavericks, who faced not only the five players on the court but also the 20,000 screaming fans. They reacted poorly. Jason Terry hit a big three and Shawn Marion scored on one of the post-ups he'd been using to abuse smaller Portland defenders, but that was about all Dallas got. The Mavericks couldn't get the ball to Dirk Nowitzki when the Blazers switched the pick-and-roll, and when Jason Kidd got a wide-open three in the final minute, he pushed it long by about two feet.

Credit the entire Portland lineup for bringing energy defensively. The versatility of Nicolas Batum was a huge factor down the stretch, while Roy served well as a help defender and took a key charge. Aldridge and Wallace played the entire quarter and locked down the paint. Batum checked out briefly, which I'm not sure made sense because Andre Miller's ballhandling was superfluous with Roy running the offense, but he was back on the floor for the last two minutes.

On the other side, Rick Carlisle curiously went back to DeShawn Stevenson for a stretch of nearly three minutes in the fourth quarter. Stevenson's previous final-period action in this series consisted of the first 1:16 of Game One and the last 28 seconds of Game Two, which was long since decided. Stevenson was more aggressive today and scored eight points--a big factor, along with Marion's 12, in giving Dallas more offensive balance--but he could not translate that effort into the final period before being pulled.

The other interesting strategic aspect of this game came in the last minute. After Kidd's airball, the Blazers took possession up two with 28.9 seconds on the clock and the Mavericks out of timeouts. (In an issue worth its own discussion, Carlisle keeps using timeouts early in the game, leaving him with less than a full complement of three entering the final three minutes. It cost him here.) Dallas chose not to foul, which Carlisle explained later was because he figured his veteran team could get something off quickly.

The Mavericks delivered their best defensive possession of the game, with Kidd shadowing Roy and keeping him from getting the basketball. That foiled McMillan's play, and Roy missed at the shot-clock buzzer. Kidd rebounded and fired long to Jason Terry for a three at the buzzer that was as good a look as the Mavericks could have hoped to get in the situation, but there was no denying the script. This was Portland's, and Roy's day. No matter how improbable.

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Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Kevin by clicking here or click here to see Kevin's other articles.

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