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Confidence Clinic In Portland

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By two o'clock this morning in the east, it was hard to remember or believe that Charles Barkley had said what he had less than two hours prior in TNT's studios about a game going on in Portland.

It was something to the effect of "I'm only watching this game because you're paying me to watch this game."

That was at halftime of a one-point game on TNT that Sir Charles suggested was a boring contest between the Rockets and Blazers.

Much as I love Charles, I can't help but resist the poke at him on this one.  After all, the game the man called boring only featured an extra period of play and three (count 'em!) shots made in the final two seconds.

Among all that was awe-striking about the finish of this game, perhaps nothing was more so than the smoothness and confidence displayed by the two individuals who combined to hit those final three shots, particularly considering the sorts of nights those two were having prior.

By any objective measure, Yao Ming was terrible for the first 52 minutes and 58 seconds of this contest.  For the game, he was just 4-of-13 for from the field for 13 points to go with his abysmal 6 rebounds in 41 minutes.  To put the rebounding from the 7-foot-6 center in perspective, all you have to know is that the Blazers' starting shooting guard finished with 7 boards, and Travis Outlaw came off the Portland bench to grab 13 of the buggers on his own.  Yao's inability to get to the basketball was a big part of the reason the Rockets got their clocks cleaned on the boards, finishing minus-12 in that department for the game. 

Through most of this game, his offensive performance was another reason Houston couldn't seem to pull away from an inferior Portland squad.  He had no touch from mid-range, and I lost count of how many shots he had shots tipped or blocked around the bucket by Joel Przybilla or LaMarcus Aldridge. 

But for as bad as he was throughout the evening, with the game on the line, it was like none of his first 12 shots had happened.  All that mattered in that moment was the 13th, and Yao knew it.  With the Rockets down two and less than two seconds to play, Yao set up just outside the left block, caught an inbounds entry pass and turned to take the sort of shot he hadn't been able to hit all night.  Swish.  Plus the foul, thanks to a foul on the help defender in the area.  The free throw was nothing but net, too, and with eight-tenths of a second to play, the Rockets led, 99-98.

It was the type of play an athlete doesn't make without a special level of confidence.  Yes, these players are professionals, and they are paid to be able to make shots like the one Yao made last night, but that doesn't mean it's easy.  Especially on a night that has been terrible prior, especially while one's team is losing, especially with a raucous crowd of thousands watching.  Despite all that, Yao Ming showed no hesitation, and his body language looked smooth as could be as he hit the shot that looked like a game-winner for the Rockets.

Except for one thing: In the stone-cold killer category on Thursday night in Portland, Yao only placed second.

Brandon Roy didn't play the world's greatest first 52:58 either, though he contributed a bit more for his team than Yao did, pulling down 7 boards (3 offensive) and dishing out 5 assists.  But he too couldn't seem to get the ball to go down, going just 6-for-18 from the field for the night and struggling both from around the rim and the outside as well.  This was a guy who capped regulation by having the ball stripped from him by Ron Artest.

But once more, in the final seconds, it was as though none of the prior misery had ever come to pass.  With the Blazers pushing the ball in transition in the final five seconds of a tie game in overtime, Roy began to attack hard from the right wing.  Suddenly, he stopped on a dime, leaving Artest stumbling for his balance as he slid down toward the low block.  As the former Defensive Player of the Year tried to recover, Roy lifted up from 21 feet.  The stroke couldn't have looked any smoother.  Blazers by two, 1.9 seconds to play.

Just when it looked like Roy's rough night was coming to an end, this, of course, set up Yao's bucket-and-foul.  The help defender who made the foolish mistake of fouling a good free throw shooter on a turn-around jump shot was - you guessed it - Brandon Roy.

Less than a second to play.  Down one.  Roy's big basket wiped out by his own mistake at the other end.

Until it wasn't.

That's because Brandon Roy made sure this would be a night to remember for the Portland faithful by sprinting to the ball more than five feet behind the three-point line, catching the inbounds pass from Steve Blake and releasing in one perfect motion.  Legs into his shot.  Right arm extended up and out.  Shooting wrist snapped on the release.  Just the right arc.  Just the right distance.  Bottom of the net.  Blazers 101, Rockets 99.  Good game, and good night.

It wasn't just the beauty and difficulty of those three shots in the final two seconds of overtime in Portland last night that left me dumbfounded, although there is plenty to be said for those two factors.  But it was who made the shots and how they did it that really put a special punctuation on a crazy finish.  Two stars having horrible nights, stars who know that they are expected to be pillars for their squads.  When push came to shove, no matter what had happened all night long, those two managed to push everything else out of their minds to focus completely on making the night's biggest shots count.  That is what confidence is all about.

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Worth reading: After the game, Ben from Blazer's Edge nailed a sweet interview with the hero himself, Brandon Roy.  Great stuff, Ben.