NBA Playoffs Preview: Rockets vs. Trail Blazers
Through all the craziness of the past six months, we've finally made it to playoff time. Matchups came down to the wire, with some teams not knowing their seed until late last night, after the final games were over. We're here for you though, and it would be an understatement to say we have some pretty amazing articles ahead of us.
Over the next two days, the NBA writers here at numberFire are going to break down each series, in a unique numbers-y way that you won't find anywhere else. We hope you enjoy.
Houston Rockets (4)
Championship Odds: 9.7%
Portland Trail Blazers (5)
Championship Odds: 1.6%
Regular Season Series - Rockets 3, Blazers 1
These two teams have both played twice at home and all four of them have been very high scoring - both squads in all four meetings scored over 100 points. If the past games are a good predictor of this series, then it will likely come down to one thing: rebounding. In the first game back in November, the Rockets destroyed the Blazers in the paint, out-rebounding them 47-30. The Blazers won the second game in December. In that game, LaMarcus Aldridge went for 31 points and 25 rebounds, and the Blazers won the boards battle 52-49.
The Blazers and Rockets rank first and fourth in the league in rebounding the season, respectively. In two of the games the Blazers lost to the Rockets, they were held way below their leading 46.4 per game, only grabbing 30 and 37 in those two. In the final game of the regular season series, they out-rebounded the Rockets 56 to 48, and had a great shot at winning as a result. But James Harden nullified that by notching 41 points, 10 rebounds, 6 assists, and 6 steals. If he's on like that, the Blazers are in some trouble.
How the Rockets Can Win
Pound it inside. Dwight Howard has had his way against the Blazers, and the Rockets need to use that same game plan in this series. In two of the regular season games, the Rockets shot over 52% and Dwight had 29 and 24 points. While James Harden, Chandler Parsons and company can get out in transition, the Rockets are also very good in the halfcourt with Dwight this year. If they go inside-out against the Blazers, they have a great shot at wrapping up this series quickly.
The other way they could win is James Harden. In the last regular season meeting between these teams, the script was being written for a Blazers victory - the Rockets shot 42% and the Blazers won the rebounding battle. However, Harden decided to turn it up and went for 41. When he is in full attack mode, using a variety of shot fakes and clever footwork, the Blazers just don't have a perimeter defender that can guard him. He can single-handedly win a couple games for the Rockets, as he did that game when he dropped 20 points in the fourth quarter and overtime.
Rockets Player to Watch - Patrick Beverley
The lazy defense of James Harden has been a much talked about topic this year by NBA analysts. Regardless of how you feel about Harden's defense, it hasn't been a huge problem, or else they probably wouldn't be the fourth seed in a brutal Western Conference. The guy that lets Harden focus on his offensive game and makes up for his defensive inadequacies? Patrick Beverley.
In two of the four regular season games between these two teams, Beverley played 28 and 29 minutes. In the other two, he played 36 and 39 minutes. Now let's look at the stat lines for Damian Lillard. In the games Beverley played less than 30 minutes, Lillard averaged 23 points and 5 assists. In the games Beverley played over 35 minutes, Lillard was held to 8 points in the first and had 7 turnovers in the second. In the latter, Beverley had 4 steals. The should-be All-Defensive player can, by himself, take away the Blazers second-best offensive option. If he gets the minutes, of course.
How the Trail Blazers Can Win
In one word: defense. In the three games the Blazers have lost to the Rockets this year, they have given up 116, 126, and 118 points. In their sole victory, they only allowed the Rockets to score 104, significantly below the Rockets' league leading 116 per game. The Rockets are a good offensive team - that isn't going to change over the next week - but the Blazers will at least have to limit what they do on that end if they want a shot.
On the year, the Rockets have an ORtg of 108.6. Against the Blazers, that balloons all the way up to 114.6. You just can't win a playoff series when you're giving up an average 1.146 points on every possession. Unfortunately, defense is something that is hard to just "turn on", and some of their main players - Lillard especially - just aren't good defenders. But they do have one good defensive player down low, and he might just be the key to this series.
Blazers Player to Watch - Robin Lopez
In the first game of the regular season series, Robin Lopez was completely ineffective. He finished with zero points, six rebounds, and five personal fouls in only 17 minutes of action. The second game he stayed out of a foul trouble and ended up with 16 points and 10 rebounds in 36 minutes, and Portland won. He is the Blazers best interior defender, and it's no coincidence that the Rockets shot 54.7% from the field in the first game he was hampered by foul trouble, and only 42.6% in the game he played 36 minutes.
Aldridge is obviously a big part of what the Blazers do offensively, and has been one of the best power forwards in the game this year. However, if they want to take the Rockets down in a seven-game series, they're going to have to defend the rim. Lopez is the guy to do that. In the third game of the regular season series, he played only 27 minutes and the Rockets erupted for 126 points, shooting 52.3% from the field. Lopez has to get at least 30 minutes a game and be effective in the paint against Dwight and Omer Asik if the Blazers want to win this series.
In the end, I think the Blazers' defensive problems will be the difference - the Rockets are just a really bad offensive matchup for them. Despite some heroic games from Aldridge, I think the Rockets bigs, along with Harden, will be too powerful on the offensive end for the Blazers to match.
According to our algorithms: Rockets in 5
My final prediction: Rockets in 6