Believe it or not, there are actually teams in this league who weren't favored to take over the universe as this season started. And yes, the Portland Trail Blazers actually get to play one when they take on the Houston Rockets in their third game of the year, live from the Toyota Center in Houston tonight at 5:00 Pacific. The game will be televised on CSNNW.
But anyone who thinks the young Rockets will provide Portland a breather needs to check with the Detroit Pistons and Atlanta Hawks, the two teams Houston bullied to earn their 2-0 record so far. Even though the quality of opponent has been less than sterling, the Rockets are creeping towards "best unexpected surprise of the season" status already. If the Blazers aren't careful, they could end up on the wrong end of a whuppin' here.
The most widely-publicized development for the Rockets so far has been two massive scoring displays by newly-acquired guard James Harden. Blasting away in possession after possession in a torrent which would never have been allowed in Oklahoma City, Harden has etched 37 and 45 point performances beneath his name. He's rebounded a little, he's added some assists and steals, he's stroked threes...he's writing his own version of "Free to Be, You and Me". Oklahoma City GM Sam Presti, meanwhile, has "It's Alright to Cry" looping on his .mp3 player.
Several of you have written to ask what I think of the trade that sent Harden to Houston and Kevin Martin plus picks to the Thunder. I'll likely address it in an upcoming Videocast but here's a bonus for faithful weekend-game-preview readers. It feels to me like Oklahoma City got cutesy here. Blazers fans will remember what "cutesy" means. It's like coming within a quarter of beating the Lakers in the Conference Finals and then trading away Jermaine O'Neal and Brian Grant for Dale Davis and Shawn Kemp. OKC won't fall as precipitously as the Blazers did following those deals. They may not fall at all. But when you're that close to a title you do everything you can to cover the last few yards to the goal line. If that means you have to overpay a guy, you do it. It's fine to write a big check to the final guy filling out your roster. You just don't want to do it early, before you have your pieces together.
Instead the Thunder went with a rookie, a make-do player for the year, and potential cap space plus some picks later. It's possible they develop anyway. It's also possible that two years from now Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant realize they're sick of each other and haven't won a title in the meantime to cement them despite their differences. The burning question when you're this close to glory is, "Who knows if we'll ever get here again?" You don't fiddle with anything that puts that question more in doubt rather than less. That's exactly what the Thunder have done. So far Houston has been the beneficiary. Whether paying Harden over the long haul makes sense for Houston the way it would have for OKC remains to be seen. The Rockets are not as close to a title as the Thunder and 80-odd points does not an $80 million contract make. But right now Houston is riding high because of this deal.
It'd be a mistake to pin the Rockets' wins on Harden alone, however. He's been the key player, breaking down the gate so his teammates could storm the castle, but that storm has been pretty potent. The Rockets have obliterated their opponents on the boards (+9 vs. DET, +22 vs, ATL) and they scored 50 points in the paint in each game. When you score half a hundred in the key you have taken a large leap towards winning. Both rebounding and paint points will concern the Blazers, as Portland is vulnerable in the middle.
New acquisition Omer Asik has been a terror on the boards at center. Jeremy Lin is riffing off of Harden, scoring well enough. Lin has trouble taking care of the ball, a condition that has become endemic to his team...one of the few dim spots in their otherwise bright start and an area in which Portland will try to build an advantage tonight.
Power Forwards Marcus Morris and Patrick Patterson have swapped starts. Both are nursing injuries. Sophomore Chandler Parsons starts at small forward. He looks kind of scruffy-goofy which also describes his shot so far this year. He's a decent defender but Portland's Nicolas Batum should be looking to bounce back from last night's gruesome offensive performance, taking a few defensive liberties to concentrate on scoring.
Houston's bench would be considered average by most standards. It features whichever power forward mentioned above who didn't start plus the likes of Carlos Delfino, Toney Douglas, Daequan Cook, Cole Aldrich, and Greg Smith (another semi-injured power forward). It's a modest group in terms of experience and talent, mostly place-holders filling in for starters now and for the rookies whom the Rockets hope to develop for the future. Even this makeshift group looks pretty decent next to Portland's bench, however...a factor which may come into play as both teams are coming off of a hard-fought game and travel.
The Blazers will hope to pit agile, skilled wing defenders against Harden tonight, let Damian Lillard at least match (if not exceed) Lin's production, then watch Aldridge and Batum out-duel whatever forwards the Rockets trot out. They'll have to pray their interior guys can rebound and keep the Rockets from an all-you-can-eat paint buffet. They'll want to put pressure on Houston, forcing turnovers and trying to match the astonishing 33 fast break points the Hawks put up last night. (Apparently Houston guards like scoring a little more than getting back?) Naturally the Blazers will need three-point shots to fall as well so they can then attack the relatively exposed interior defenders for the Rockets.
Some of these things will surely happen. All of them happening at once on the second night of a back-to-back without Portland's lack of depth getting exposed? That's going to be a long shot. Still, enough of them could happen to make a hot streak (or a long streak of Houston miscues) bend the outcome of this game. The Rockets don't have much experience together and in some ways don't have much experience period. A surprising loss wouldn't be out of the question. But as was the case in Oklahoma City, you'd bet that if both teams played their games well Houston's interior grit and prowess would average out better than Portland's exterior skill and daring.
You can read more about the Rockets at TheDreamShake.
Make sure you join us an hour before tip-off for our GameDay Open Thread and afterwards for the quick recap and analysis.
Blazer tickets for all upcoming game, including this one, are available from Blazer's Edge sponsor TiqIQ.