The topic that's exploded all over my inbox, the sidebar, and even (as GoBlaze22 has pointed out for us) in Mike Barrett's blog is the officiating in the Houston-Portland series. The question/assertion on everybody's mind: Is something going on here?!?
Here's my best shot at an answer.
The proceedings so far can be described as unusual in a couple of ways. The first, mentioned in the Game 4 recap, is that in 3 of 4 games so far the Blazers have attempted no free throws in the first quarter. Coupled with that, Blazer centers--in particular Joel Przybilla--have drawn a high percentage of their fouls in the first quarter. In Przybilla's case many of these fouls have been away from the post, in situations atypical of the regular season rhythm of whistles. There's no smoking gun here. This combination is just...strange.
Whenever something is unusual you want to examine it. However in that examination you also want to rule out reasonable causes before you jump to less reasonable or unusual ones, such as alleged bias.
--The Blazers' first quarter offense has tended towards jumpers. While it's hard to imagine them meriting ZERO free throws game after game after game one could imagine fewer free throws. I suppose the far end of "fewer" is zero.
--Yao Ming is unusual not just because of his talent but because he creates more contact on the move than does the normal big center. He's not a low post player exclusively. The Houston offense requires him to be in motion. This could help explain some of the fouls that are outside of the normal range for Blazer centers.
--The NBA has always favored bigger names with the benefit of the doubt in close calls. For better or worse, this is the league. Houston will find themselves on the opposite end of that reality should they progress to Round 2 against the L*kers. The Blazers may someday find themselves on the right side of the equation but it won't be on their first playoff trip, such favors won't be bestowed on Greg Oden until he develops more of a game, and such favors will never, ever be granted Joel Przybilla.
Is that combination enough to explain the strangeness? Probably so. Some might say the Blazers' situation might tend towards the far end of the scale but percentages say that's going to happen to somebody, sometime. If an eventuality is within the realm of reasonable probability there's no remedy for it. And if there's no remedy for it, there's no point in dwelling on it. You just move on and play.
The bigger question is how much all of this has affected the Blazers.
I would say the affect has been semi-significant in terms of establishing mode of play and playing rotations. I don't think you can separate the Rockets' ability to forge double-digit first half leads and the whistles. I don't think you can separate the Blazers' ability to recover from those deficits from the change in foul criteria after the early stages of the game. When Portland has been able to play its regular guys in their semi-regular modes they've hung with Houston. When the Blazers have had to scramble Houston has dominated. Obviously the two-fouls-in-six-minutes pace of the first quarters hasn't dogged the Blazers all game long or both centers would be fouling out of every game by the third quarter. The ability to put the right people on the floor and play defense at least normally, if not aggressively, is important to the Blazers.
That said, the role of both Przybilla and Oden at this point is to suppress Yao Ming. The Blazers have done a reasonable job of that even with fouls and limited minutes for its center duo. The Rockets aren't running away from the Blazers on offense and Yao hasn't had a mammoth game since the first.
Another role of the Blazers centers is to rebound. In this Portland has been less successful.
Part of the fallout of the lack of rebounding has been the inability to consistently control tempo and possession. Houston has wrested away control of quarters and games from the Blazers far more than the Blazers have from Houston.
However that wresting of control, while often occurring in the first quarter, has not been limited to that quarter. As we saw in the fourth quarter of Game 4, the Rockets have been taking over games even with Przybilla and/or Oden on the court. And when the Blazers have lost control of games, it hasn't really been the refs taking them out. Rather the Rockets have played bigger, quicker, and more aggressively.
At the end of the day, that last paragraph is the rub for Portland. The Blazers haven't fallen behind in this series just from a lack of Przybilla and Oden, but from the lack of being able to utilize Przybilla and Oden (and a couple other players) to full advantage.
As long as that is happening, you can't really point to the refs as the deciding cause no matter what strangeness you perceive. Only when the Blazers play at full capacity and then get beaten under strange circumstances can any kind of meaningful query be initiated, let alone remedies discussed. Even if the circumstances have been unusual in some ways, it's still incumbent on the Blazers to persevere. That will be one of the deeper lessons learned from this first round experience in victory or defeat.
In basketball as with most things in life, it's not your circumstances but what you do with them that determines your ultimate success.