The Houston Rockets' fastest player helplessly watches from the end of the bench as Damian Lillard catches the ball with enough space between him and the nearest defender to build a small moat. Jeremy Lin is standing near the corner on the sideline, having just been inexplicably benched by Kevin McHale one final, fatal time.
Chandler Parsons barely ends up within spitting range of Lillard (and even Keith Herandez might have some doubts of that). Forget about any chance of bothering the shot.
McHale's handpicked defender completely blows the assignment that should have been Jeremy Lin's. No question. No debate. Lin stays with Lillard nearly every chance he gets during the game. He draws praises for his defense from ESPN commentator Hubie Brown, an old coach who knows plenty of basketball. Lin forces Lillard to make some ridiculously tough shots, including that magnificent up-and-under move.
But with the Rockets season on the line, with McHale's team only 0.9 seconds away from forcing one of those Game Sevens that home teams don't lose, with anyone who's watched the Trail Blazers even once this season knowing exactly where the ball's going, McHale seizes up. He yanks Lin from the game at the 0.9 second mark to get Terrence Jones on the floor for the final play.
Kevin McHale benches Jeremy Lin and blows the game. Sound familiar?
Instead of putting his fastest guard on Portland's Big Shot Maker, he gives the job to Parsons — a 6-foot-9 forward.
And you still think the final shot is some sort of miracle?
Please. It's just one more coaching blunder. Kevin McHale benches Jeremy Lin and blows the game. Sound familiar? It's been the hidden soundtrack of this star-crossed Rockets season all along — one a largely adoring Houston media refused to see.
Oh, Damian Lillard hits a hell of a shot. But McHale allows him to get the look — an insanely good look considering the circumstances. Is it any wonder that Lillard obliges by sticking a walk-off, series-ending 3-pointer that will long live on in NBA history?
Trail Blazers 99, Rockets 98. Thanks for coming, your playoffs are over.
There is no way it should end like this for Dwight Howard, who plays one of the most dominant big man fourth quarters you'll ever see. There's no way it should end like this for way for James Harden, who finally delivers that monster game (34 points on only 15 shots, 32 of those points coming in the game's first 30 minutes). There's no way it should end like this for Jeremy Lin, who appears to hit the triple that seals the game — only to see it wiped out by a pointless Omer Asik offensive foul.
But it does. Because Kevin McHale cannot help himself. He benches Jeremy Lin for the deciding play.
With a chance to set up his defense out of a timeout, McHale pulls out his fastest guard, the player who Brown praises for flying over on a defensive rotation to force Lillard to miss a three earlier in the game. Houston's coach insists on ending the game with his favored, flawed lineup of Harden, Howard, Parsons, Jones and Patrick Beverley on the floor.
And he assigns Lillard — the ultra quick Portland point guard — to Parsons. Who's surprised this didn't work?
Oh, Damian Lillard hits a hell of a shot. But McHale allows him to get the look — an insanely good look considering the circumstances.
"We didn't execute very well on that last defensive play," McHale says in his televised postgame press conference. "(Lillard) took off and Chandler just never caught up."
It takes one quick jab step for Lillard to lose Parsons. Meanwhile, the quick Lin just stands there on the end of the bench, watching the season go down in the flick of Lillard's wrist.
"He just got a step on me coming off the stagger (screen inbounds play)," Parsons tells CSN Houston in the Rockets locker room. ". . . With .9, you can't give up a three. It's the only way you lose."
The Rockets lose in the first round in six games — the same exact result they recorded in the playoffs last season without Dwight Howard. What great progress did the team make this year again?
The Rockets are getting more talented — and McHale still has them running in place. There's no way to paint this ending as anything but a complete disaster. Especially not with Daryl Morey — the Rockets own general manager — saying before the series began that if both teams played their best, Houston would win.
And let's table any of that hindsight it's a four vs. five seed coin toss series talk. Absolutely everyone picked the Rockets to win this series. Many fawning Houston media cheerleaders — including 610 AM's Nick Wright, he of the 4-1 series prediction — had the Rockets rolling to an easy first round romp.
Instead, Trail Blazers coach Terry Stotts completely schools McHale. Right through the final play.
The Terry Stotts Trump Card
It's not easy for Kevin McHale to outsmart himself, but he manages to do it.
Stotts gets Lillard — the fearless point guard from Oakland who insists the zero on his jersey is an O for his tough, rough hometown — the shot everyone in Portland wants. McHale benches his best chance to stop it.
Anyone who bothered to look a little deeper could have seen the Rockets playoff disaster coming all season.
Swish! Thanks for coming, your playoffs are over.
"They were well coached," Howard says in his postgame dais moment, his 13-point fourth quarter and all those offensive rebounds completely wasted. "And they won the series."
Parsons ends up sitting slumped on the edge of the scorer's table after Lillard's game-winner, his futile momentum having taken him there, his sudden heartache having left him no will to move from the stop afterwards. In reality, Parsons isn't the one who just never caught up. McHale is.
Anyone who bothered to look a little deeper could have seen the Rockets playoff disaster coming all season. McHale's been laying the groundwork for this for months with his refusal to start his best point guard, his panicky sudden rotation switches (when did Donatas Motiejunas fall down a well?) and his glaring confidence-stealing lack of trust in so many of the bench options Morey gave him.
It all comes crashing down in the roar of the Moda Center, with Lillard hitting the too-easy look and then taking the microphone to scream "Rip City!" in the Rockets' still-ringing ears.
"I didn't think this series was defined by that final shot," Rockets great Calvin Murphy says on CSN's postgame show.
Murph's right. This playoff disaster is hardly all about one shot. But this final shot sure cruelly and devastatingly encapsulates the Rockets woes.
Kevin McHale benches Jeremy Lin. The Rockets lose. The Lin Only Haters will erupt in self righteous protest. But one can only hide the truth for so long.