Game 60 Preview: Rockets vs. Trail Blazers

Game Time:  7:00 p.m.  TV:  CSNNW

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Injury UpdatesThe Blazers report that guard Brandon Roy will play tonight but not tomorrow (on the second half of the back-to-back) and that guard Rudy Fernandez is "doubtful" for tonight's game because he's sick. Jay Allen of 95.5 FM notes that "Rudy is on his way to the hospital for treatment/IV."

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Initial reaction:  Game 60?  Really?  How the season flies.  This is not only the 3/4 milepost (at halftime anyway) of the season, it's also a flashing red light notice to the Blazers that they need to put up or shut up.  The 30-31 Rockets are coming to town having won 5 of their last 6 games.  Roll or no roll, new faces or not, this is a game the Blazers have to win.  Otherwise they're going to oops and shrug themselves down to the 8th seed as game after game streaks by.  The Blazers have 11 games in the next 20 days.  The schedule gets BRUTAL after March 19th.  Portland's fate may not be decided in the next three weeks but we'll have a good idea which direction they're headed based on their play in the immediate future, accent on immediate.  All hands on deck, it's time to play for keeps.

Houston has taken care of Denver, Detroit, Cleveland, New Jersey, and New Orleans in their mini winning jag.  Most of those games were close.  Most were also on the road though.  The Rockets, too, will have this game circled as both a test and one of their chances to take a bite out of teams ahead of them in the standings and claim a playoff spot of their own.  Houston is nowhere as good as they used to be when Yao Ming was healthy and the likes of Luis Scola and Carl Landry patrolled the paint.  Scola is the only famous guy from their recent past still in uniform and producing.  But they've transformed themselves from a big, defensive-minded team into an offensive thunderstorm.  No longer relying on the now-departed Aaron Brooks to carry the load, they feature Kevin Martin, Scola, and a supporting cast that goes on longer than an American Pie remix.  Kyle Lowry, Chase Budinger, Courtney Lee, Chuck Hayes, Brad Miller, Jordan Hill, and now Goran Dragic.  They all play and they all produce.  Martin is the lightning and Scola the thunder but they overflow your levies with a slow drip from all directions.  They're 3rd in the league in scoring at 105.5 per game, 5th in offensive efficiency, 8th in fast break points, 10th in points in the paint.  These aren't Phoenix-Golden State numbers but they're remarkable for a team that boasts one (count him, one) legit 20 ppg scorer.  This is made more remarkable when you consider the Rockets are only 20th in shooting percentage out of 30 teams.  Their secret?  They hit threes, draw fouls, and offensive rebound creating extra points and extra possessions.  They protect those possessions very well for a relatively high-paced team, seldom turning over the ball.  Even though they lack the overwhelming athleticism of Portland's last opponent, the Atlanta Hawks, they are going to get physical and give that kind of relentless effort on offense.

The Rockets' defense, on the other hand, doesn't make it off the launching pad.  (Personally I find this sad, as I respect the old Rocket way.)  They allow 105.8 points per game, 24th in the league.  They're bad in transition and positively porous in the paint.  They allow more two-point shots than anybody in the league.  They're 23rd in opponent shooting percentage, 18th in opponent three-point percentage.  They don't create turnovers.  They don't block shots.  The only thing they do well is avoid fouls.  They don't even rebound that well at the defensive end.

None of this is surprising when you figure the Yao-shaped hole in the middle of their team.  Like the Blazers they're a franchise scrambling to figure out "What now?" and "What next?"  They're making small transitions while ascertaining whether they need to make the Big One with their center and their future plans.  What could have been an epic matchup has long since gone by the wayside, trampled under the broken feet and knees of Yao Ming and Greg Oden.  But this should be an interesting game nevertheless, hard-fought on both sides and meaningful.

If the Blazers are to prevail they will have to reclaim the mastery on the boards they so casually ceded to the Hawks on Sunday.  Portland's effort will have to be superior because all of those Rockets guys playing 15-18 minutes per game are going to make the most of their time.  My gut says that effort alone will determine the winner.  If you're looking for other indicators, check out Portland's points in the paint.  That number should be huge tonight.  Settling for jumpers against the Rockets isn't the worst thing in the world but it's not entirely necessary either.  Offensive rebounding could be a deep well of life for the Blazers.  Normally you speculate Portland would have a hard time scoring 106 to beat the other team's average but between those two factors it's possible.  LaMarcus Aldridge is a huge key in both departments, of course.  Look for Gerald Wallace and Nicolas Batum to be key players as well.  The Rockets will no doubt take a page from...well, everybody and try to pack it in against Portland during stretches of this game.  Batum, Rudy Fernandez, and Wesley Matthews hitting a couple deeps shots would break Houston's backs.  3-21 from the arc will break Portland's.  Finally, make Martin pay for every one of his 20+ points by scoring 3 for every 2 he puts in.  Make the guy defend hard and run hard and you'll probably find success.

Get impressed at the b-ball knowledge over at The Dream Shake.

Enter tonight's Jersey Contest form here.

--Dave (blazersub@yahoo.com)

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