Then guard Damian Lillard buried a 3-point shot at the buzzer, lifting the Portland Trail Blazers to a 99-98 victory over the Rockets and touching off a mad celebration on Friday night at the Moda Center.
Lillard's winner closed out the Rockets in six games and sends the Trail Blazers into the Western Conference semifinals. PORTLAND will face the winner of the San Antonio-Dallas series, which is tied 3-3.
"It was a hell of a win," Portland coach Terry Stotts said. "I don't know that it could have been any more dramatic."
Lillard's winner came after forward Chandler Parsons had given Houston a 98-97 lead on a putback with .9 of a second remaining. After a timeout, PORTLAND inbounded the ball to Lillard, who turned and launched a 25-footer that found nothing but net as time expired.
"I got a pretty good look," said Lillard, who was 8-of-14 from the field and 6-of-10 from 3-point range. "I was able to get free and got squared up, and once I saw it on line, I thought, 'It has a chance.'"
Stotts said, "He lives for those moments. It looked good when it left (his hands). It was a remarkable shot."
"We didn't execute very well," Houston coach Kevin McHale said. "We said, 'No 3's.' (Lillard) just took off running and got separation on the first step, and Chandler just never caught up. (Lillard) made a hell of a shot.
"We had a great opportunity to bring it back to Houston. That was our goal. We didn't get it done."
Harden scored 24 points to stake Houston to a two-point halftime lead, sinking 5 of 8 shots from the field, 4 of 5 from 3-point range and 10 of 10 from the foul line. Aldridge had 21 points and seven rebounds at the break for the Blazers.
Forward Thomas Robinson scored two baskets to give PORTLAND an 85-81 lead with nine minutes left. The Blazers led 91-87 when Howard made 4 of 4 at the line to tie it at 91, then scored on a layup to give Houston a 93-91 lead with three minutes to play.
Guard Wesley Matthews sank one of two shots at the line to make it 93-92, and center Robin Lopez's tip-in gave PORTLAND a 94-93 advantage with 2:10 to play. But Howard scored on a putback and then converted a three-point play to push the Rockets ahead 96-94 with 1:47 to go.
On Houston's next possession, both Howard and Harden missed shots, but the Rockets retained possession when Lillard grabbed the rebound after stepping inbounds. The Rockets worked the clock and Harden's shot bounced off the rim to Parsons, who converted a reverse layup to give the visitors the lead with .9 on the clock.
"It hurts," Howard said. "When you put everything you got on the floor and somebody hits you with a dagger like that, it's a tough pill to swallow."
Harden had 11 points in first 5 1/2 minutes to stake Houston to a 15-13 lead. The Rockets increased the advantage to 27-17 late in the first quarter. The Blazers responded with an 8-0 run and closed the gap to 29-28 on a Lillard 3-pointer as the first quarter ended.
PORTLAND took the lead at 34-32 on a jumper by Robinson early in the second quarter. The Rockets went back on top 48-42, but PORTLAND answered with a 7-0 spurt to go in front 49-48 with 3:25 left in the quarter. Houston, using 16 fast-break points to full advantage, took a 58-56 lead into the half.
NOTES: G Damian Lillard is the first player to make a buzzer-beating shot to win a playoff series since Utah's John Stockton against Houston in 1997. ... Lillard scored seven points in the final minute of the first quarter -- on a 3-point shot and a four-point play. ... F LaMarcus Aldridge, who had averaged 35.3 points and 11.5 rebounds in the first four games, bounced back from an eight-point performance in PORTLAND's Game 5 loss.