Houston Rockets vs. Portland Trail Blazers Preview

Crawford, Felton, and Matthews may decide this game. Photo: Jeff Hanisch-US PRESSWIRE

Game Time: 7:00 p.m. TV: CSNNW

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Update: According to the Blazers, Nicolas Batum is a "game-time decision" with "left quad tendonitis." Joe Freeman of The Oregonian reports that Batum did not take part in Monday's shootaround and that interim coach Kaleb Canales said guard Jamal Crawford will start if Batum does not play. -- Ben

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The Houston Rockets (31-25) are on quite a roll lately. They're 7-3 in their last 10 but 2 of those losses came in overtime. They've been right there in every game regardless of opponent, actually beating the Lakers twice, the Grizzlies, and the Bulls. They're right in the middle of the race for the 5-10 spots in the West, standings changing hourly. Our internal clocks are all messed up because of the lockout-shortened schedule but the end of the regular season is two and a half weeks away. That means this game will be crucial to the Rockets. Technically the Blazers aren't totally eliminated from the playoffs either. They currently reign as the best of the teams who almost-for-sure aren't going to make it, but that "almost for sure" means they shouldn't be losing home games to teams that aren't clearly elite.

Not that elite status has been required from Houston this season against the Blazers. They've beaten Portland twice: in Houston in overtime on January 14th and in Portland by 7 a month ago. The latter loss was right at the beginning of Portland's tailspin, the game immediately following the Kevin Durant goaltending call. The Blazers played with effort so lackluster as to make an office temp blush. The energy is higher nowadays but the talent pool is more shallow, partly because of Marcus Camby's migration to Houston. Tonight will be his first trip to the Rose City since being traded. With Portland center-less outside of Joel Przybilla's obligatory 13 minutes, a multi-block, super-multi-rebound night from Camby is a real worry.

Technically Camby is Houston's second center behind Samuel Delambert, another lanky shot-blocker/rebounder. When you add forwards Luis Scola and Mr. Everything Chandler Parsons, Houston's frontcourt defense looks scary. Their biggest problem is inconsistency. Part of that is attributable to their backcourt. Kyle Lowry, likely Houston's best defender among regular backcourt players, is injured. Even on his great days, though, he's not exactly a stopper. His replacement Goran Dragic is not a defender. Shooting guard Kevin Martin is just bad, but he's also injured. Stand-in Courtney Lee is no help. Houston puts plenty of pressure on their own frontcourt defenders. Plus those big guys, while capable, are more big-block, big-moment defenders than grinders. The combination of porous backcourt and opportunistic-more-than-solid frontcourt leads to nights when Houston looks all-world on defense and other nights when it looks like anyone in the world could score on them.

Houston's offense is down the middle most of the way. They've got good shooters in general. They're also good from the arc. They balance that by not drawing fouls. In nearly every other category they're in solid league-median position. Obviously losing Lowry and Martin hurts them, but Dragic has stepped in with some truly prolific scoring efforts and Scola is doing his part. After that it's a little bit of this, a little of that. What they lack in scoring punch they make up for in shooting prowess and they hope that's good enough.

The most direct route to victory tonight for the Blazers would be to turn that offense inside out. Stopping Scola is the first priority, then rotating to shooters. If you can manage to keep Scola from easy looks while getting a hand near jump-shooters Dragic and the rest of the lineup will have a hard time generating enough points. If Scola rips a hole in your defense the more men you pour down it the more those now-free jump-shooters will hit open shots. Stop Luis and take your chances. The key on the other end is aggression. Those shot blockers will send back weak attempts all night long. The Blazers need decisive performances at the arc (as has been typical of them lately) plus a few strong drives to keep the defense honest. Mid-range and dipsy-doodle lane shots are going to get you into trouble tonight. While LaMarcus Aldridge is always the #1 option this may be a game where the work of the guards will win or lose it.

The Dream Shake will give you the Houston perspective.

You can enter tonight's Jersey Contest form here.

--Dave (blazersub@gmail.com)

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