Game 76 Preview: Blazers vs. Rockets

There was a moment back in 1990--before the Drexler era had become an era, before any of the Finals trips--when the attitude, character, and respectability of the Blazers changed.  The team had those attributes before this moment, to be sure, but they weren't proven, fully on display for the world to see before this watershed contest.

It was April 18th and the Blazers faced their 80th game of the season in Phoenix against the powerful Suns offense.  They brought an impressive 56-23 record into the game but we had seen regular season success before.  Everybody was hoping that Portland would develop into a serious team but year after year of first-round playoff exits had taught us not to assume things.  We also knew not to expect road wins against great teams.

The Blazers had beaten the Suns twice before that season, both times at home.  They had lost both games on the road though, continuing a long history of futility in the Arizona desert.   The Suns were stacked.  Kevin Johnson was averaging over 22 per game, Tom Chambers over 27.  They had Jeff Hornacek in his prime, Dan Majerle, Eddie Johnson.  These guys could ball.  Phoenix knew that Portland was on the rise.  They knew a playoff meeting was likely.  They brought it hard on April 18th.

Tom Chambers scored his 27 in that game.  KJ had 20 points, 17 assists, and 11 rebounds.  Hornacek scored 23.  Majerle contributed 20 points and 11 rebounds himself off the bench.  The Blazers rode their starters hard.  Nobody off the bench got more than 16 minutes, and that was Danny Young.  Robinson, Petrovic, and Cooper got 10 or 11 each.  Drexler scored 32 with 13 rebounds.  Kersey scored 31 with 12 rebounds.  Porter scored 29 with 12 assists.  Buck added 12 rebounds, Duck 17 points.

The Blazers were down by 8 entering the fourth quarter and it looked like the losing trend in Phoenix would continue.  But the Blazers posted 31 to the Suns' 23 and sent the game into overtime. I doubt there was a single person sitting in the arena or at home watching on TV.  The Blazers dominated the extra period 18-10 and walked away with a 128-120 victory.

I remember thinking (and soon afterwards everybody started saying), "Wow!  The Blazers beat Phoenix in Phoenix!  Maybe, just maybe this team really is something."

Of course that year marked Portland's return to the NBA Finals...a trip that was preceded by a six-game victory in the Conference Finals against these same Phoenix Suns, Game 6 being won on the road.

Now, I am not suggesting that today's game has the same significance as at game 20 years ago.  (Has it really been that long?)  This team isn't in the same position, nor is Houston.  The Blazers are too young, it's too soon, and this isn't the L*kers we're facing.  However there are shadows.

Houston is a tough, experienced team.  Houston can read the standings as well as we can.  They know there's a chance that they'll be meeting Portland in the playoffs this year.  They know homecourt would be a huge advantage in that series.  They know the Blazers are on their way up.  They also know Portland is still young and has not won on the road this year against good teams.  In order to show they've grown up and that they're ready, the Blazers are going to have to win critical, late-season games like this.  The Blazers have put themselves in position to have a Moment tonight.  Not THE Moment, maybe not even a Huge Moment (that would require wins on all the games of this trip) but a Moment nonetheless.

I say this not because I think the Blazers will win tonight.  In fact I don't.  If the Blazers were ready to take that step we probably would have seen it before this.  March 5th against Denver comes to mind.  But I want to emphasize again how amazing and thrilling it is that we are in a position where these moments matter.  Even having a potential Moment foreshadows great things to come.

A Look at the Rockets 

Houston is in the midst of a nasty little schedule run, having played 4 of their last 5 on the road against the Spurs, Jazz, Suns, and L*kers.  Only the San Antonio game and their one home game against the Clippers in that stretch were wins.  They're working on two straight losses which means they'll likely come out with anger in their eyes tonight.

Houston's calling card for years now has been their defense.  When you start Shane Battier and Ron Artest and then throw in Yao Ming's big body clogging up the middle you're going to frustrate your opponents.  The Rockets are 5th in the league in opponent field goal percentage, 9th in opponent three-point percentage, and 2nd in opponent free throws allowed.  They really get after you on the perimeter, choking off shots and plays.  They're not a flashy defensive team.  They don't turn you over and they're not shot blockers.  They just keep in front of you and bother you.  They're also 4th in the league in defensive rebounding percentage, so they know what to do with that shot after you've missed it.  If there is an Achilles' Heel in their defense it's that they're not always alert rotating and getting back.  They're only middle of the road in fast break points allowed and points in the paint allowed.  If you can get past the initial defender and get them moving you can hope to catch them on an off night.

It's hard to say how much Houston misses Tracy McGrady offensively.  Ron Artest and Aaron Brooks have been picking up the slack but Yao Ming has been in something of a slump lately.  The same players that make them so great defensively and on the boards--Battier, Luis Scola, Carl Landry, Chuck Hayes--often struggle to put the ball in the bucket, especially under pressure.  One wildcard for the Rockets has been former Blazer Von Wafer who occasionally busts out with double-digits.  Newly-acquired reserve Kyle Lowry has also helped stabilize the backcourt.

The Rockets are another one of those teams that has out-toughed the Blazers in the past.  The new-look Portland squad, complete with the Stare of Przybilla and the Elbows of Oden will get a test tonight, especially with everything at stake.

Keys to the Game

1.  We just illuminated the first one:  don't get outmuscled, out-fought, and taken out of this game early.  Playing catch-up against the Rockets is like bowling with a wet sponge.  You can put a lot of effort in but you're not likely to get anywhere.  Houston is not happy to see anyone right now, let alone a young, unproven team sitting right ahead of them in the standings.  You're going to get beat up from the get-go.  You better be ready to beat back.

2.  One of the best indicators of how the physical game is going will be rebounding.  Portland needs its offensive boards.  Houston is a mediocre offensive rebounding team themselves so keeping them from extra attempts should be a given.  If the Blazers can't manage this part of the game their chances for hanging in, let alone winning, become tiny.

3.  Usually we're worried about how to deal with Yao Ming but with the emergence of LaMarcus Aldridge it's time to figure out how to make Houston match up with somebody.  LaMarcus is going to get chucked, bumped, and hammered trying to go inside tonight.  He should still do it but he also needs to stroke that face-up shot and draw Houston defenders out of the lane.  Whether that's a forward or Yao himself it will impact the Rockets' ability to rebound.  The Blazers will need to throw the kitchen sink, which includes Outlaw and Oden, at the Rockets' frontcourt.  Pressure them to stay with us.

4.  Running is another great way to create mismatches.  It also keeps Yao out of the game.  Portland should be looking to push tempo at every opportunity.

5.  Somebody besides Brandon is going to have to step up because Roy is going to be hounded by tough defenders.  I'm looking at the bench:  Outlaw, Fernandez, maybe Frye.  I also think Blake needs to hit every three-pointer that comes his way to keep the Rockets honest.  Houston is going to get after all of our other distance shooters.  Blake will be the key to freeing them and freeing up the lane for drivers.

Final Thoughts

This game and Wednesday's in San Antonio have the potential to turn a well-timed late-season streak into a legitimate threat.  It'll be interesting to see how the Blazers respond in such a situation.  There's no real loss here.  2-2 on this trip would maintain Portland's position in the conference fairly well.  But there's huge potential for gain.

Check out the Houston point of view at TheDreamShake. 

Jersey Playoff participants, don't forget to enter the game form here.  (Invited playoff participants only, please!)

The game is at 4:00 p.m. Pacific and will be seen on KGW locally and NBATV nationwide.

--Dave (blazersub@yahoo.com)

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