Game 12 Preview: Portland Trail Blazers vs. Houston Rockets

Game Time: 5:00 p.m. TV: CSNNW

Update: The Blazers report on Twitter that Kurt Thomas will start at center in place of Marcus Camby rather than shifting forward Nicolas Batum into the starting lineup.

And here we go...again! Out of San Antonio and into Houston. Two years ago that would have been out of the frying pan and into the fire for the Trail Blazers. The Rockets aren't quite what they once were, however. The Trail Blazers might or might not be, but it's pretty certain they're closer to their once-quite-respectable level than Houston is currently.

That's not to say the Rockets are patsies. Kevin Martin, Luis Scola, Kyle Lowry...there's talent here. But we're used to Martin at 22-23 ppg and he's at 17 so far this year, victim of a significant drop in field goal percentage and a precipitous drop in three-point percentage (38% to 32%, and he shoots plenty of them). Scola is familiar to Portland fans as a Blazer-killer but his production is slightly off too. Lowry is the only guy motoring along as ever, having overcome a foot injury to do so. He and fellow point guard Goran Dragic are the rocks of this lineup so far. Another familiar name, center Samuel Delambert, split minutes with Jordan Hill at center. Both can rebound and hit shots in their low block wheelhouse. Delambert, of course, can block shots as well. Rookie utility man Chandler Parsons starts at small forward with utility man Chase Budinger behind him. The Rockets also bring the multi-talented Courtney Lee off the bench, though he's currently nursing a calf injury.

Collectively this isn't a bad lineup, it's just hard to say where it's a particularly good lineup if Martin and Scola aren't playing out of their minds. You like every player for different reasons, but there's no pop, no driving force, and not enough cohesion to power the team.

Houston sports an adequate offense. They spread around the ball, scoring from all angles. They're average in the paint, slightly better on the break but nothing to write home about. Their most distinctive feature is their willingness to take threes. They attempt over 21 per game, putting them in the upper echelon of the not-entirely-crazy teams in the league in that department. They only connect at an average rate, so judge for yourself whether the three-fest is a good or bad thing. Everybody but Scola and the centers will shoot them. Lowry, Dragic, and small forward Terrence Williams are the guys to fear actually connecting. They need those extra points too, as they're dead last in the league in drawing foul shots, and that's by a mile. Miami, the leagues #1 free throwers, are just a couple of attempts per game shy of doubling Houston's attempts.

Houston is OK on the boards, OK with shot blocking. They neither commit nor force many turnovers.

Defense finds the Rockets falling apart at the seams, however. They have one of the least efficient defenses in the league, largely because they allow a crap-ton (scientific measurement there) of points in the paint. While their perimeter players get around to stop jump shots, those inside attempts for the opponent make the overall opposing shooting percentage blossom. Houston is 27th in the league in field goal percentage allowed.

The task for the Blazers seems simple. Portland is more talented, playing better, and has a more seamless weave than do the Rockets. Keep Kevin Martin in his funk, get out to cover perimeter shooters (a strength so far), and rebound the ball and all should be well on the defensive end. All of that is straight out of Portland's natural profile. The Rockets don't have the kind of inside threat to make the Blazers choose who they'll let free. The Blazers can cover everybody and should do it well.

The offensive end is a little more shaky...not in theory but in execution. The Rockets defend jump shooters and not inside shots. The Blazers shoot jumpers well but not inside shots. Portland has to summon the energy, will, and enough execution to make their offense look easier than it normally does. The Blazers need to drive the lane, post Aldridge deep, do anything necessary to avoid a jump-shooting duel. This should be doable. On paper the problems seem few.

There's always the old bugaboo of being on the road and playing the second game in two nights, though. If the Blazers come in tired or take shortcuts on either end the Rockets definitely have enough talent to beat them. Portland can't just show up tonight. They have to show up to win.

Complicating things is the injury situation of Marcus Camby. The Blazers can manufacture good minutes without him but the hole in their middle was already significant. Now it's a gaping maw. Portland needs a big man to step up and fill time.

Still, this is one of the few games so far where you can say the outcome is in Portland's control. The Blazers will either take this game or give it away. Let's see how they respond.

Get the Houston story at The Dream Shake. It's one heck of a blog.

Enter tonight's Jersey Contest form here.

--Dave (blazersub@gmail.com)

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