The Dwight Howard-James Harden era has finally begun in Houston and after four games, the Rockets have seen some mixed results.
Houston is among the league leaders in rebounds, which sounds about right considering the rebounding prowess of Howard and fellow center Omer Asik. However, the Rockets are surprisingly mediocre at giving up points in the paint, though they defend the three-point line pretty well.
They don't get a lot of assists or a ton of fast-breaks but Houston is still one of the highest scoring teams in the NBA, while simultaneously giving up a ton of points, including 137 to the Clippers in a loss last night.
The Blazers have similar scoring numbers but do so more from outside shooting than drawing fouls. Their defense has allowed teams to score at will in the paint, though, and they aren't better than average defenders from anywhere on the court as a team. Portland rebounds fairly well but they're also prone to losing the battle on the glass, something coach Terry Stotts has most certainly addressed with the Rockets' starting frontcourt of Howard and Asik coming to town ready to gobble up boards -- they average 15 and 10.5 rebounds, respectively. The Blazers' post players will have to have a better rebounding presence if they want to prevent embarrassment at the hands of the Rockets.
Harden is up to his usual tricks, getting into the paint and either finishing, drawing a foul or creating for teammates. He's been pretty average from behind the arc, and an 0-7 performance last night sunk his three-point percentage to about 25 percent. He is the hub of the Rockets offense, and controls the ball more than anyone else on his team. Expect Harden to go after the Blazers' backcourt pretty hard, as they've more or less allowed penetration from opposing guards.
The 24-year-old Harden, who many consider one of the best shooting guards in the league, has actually held his own pretty well on the defensive end. Point guards Jeremy Lin and Aaron Brooks, though, have played much more pedestrian one-on-one defense. Damian Lillard will likely take advantage of the possessions when he finds himself squared off with either Lin or Brooks. He's shown that he can create for teammates, drawing double-teams and help-defenders. His remarkable outside shooting so far this season has kept defenses honest, but he's also getting into the paint, finishing and drawing fouls at a solid rate. Lillard again has an opportunity to have a huge impact, as he's facing a backcourt that should have a hard time handling the diverse ways he can affect the game.
LaMarcus Aldridge could also have a huge impact on the game. No frontcourt Houston player is equipped to individually handle Aldridge in the variety of ways he's proven capable of scoring in this season. It's worth noting, though, that the Rockets have defended the mid-range servicably so far. Within 10 feet of the basket, Houston's defense has been more forgiving. Aldridge's inside game could open things up for Portland's outside shooters or vice versa, but either way the Blazers should look to take advantage of those inside and outside opportunities and not focus on the less-efficient mid-range game, where Houston defends well anyway.
Portland's deep shots have fallen at a solid rate so far this year and Lillard, Wesley Matthews, Nicolas Batum, Mo Williams and Dorell Wright should all get some good looks against the Rockets tonight. Likewise, the Rockets have seen excellent three-point outings so far from Brooks and wings Omri Caspi and Francisco Garcia. Caspi in particular has been on fire this year, and the Blazers will have to keep an eye on him as they were burned pretty badly from outside recently by Nate Robinson in Denver and Marco Belinelli on Saturday night.
Chandler Parsons and Brooks have also been able to contribute occasionally, but neither has shown a ton of efficiency. Rockets coach Kevin McHale really doesn't play much deeper than an 8-man rotation, though you might see extended minutes tonight from Greg Smith, Terrence Jones or Donatas Motiejunas, all big men. Houston is coming into town on the second half of a back-to-back that started out with a deflating loss to the Clippers, and McHale might be forced to dip into his reserves more than usual.
The Blazers, on the other hand, have had a few days' rest at home and a couple galvanizing victories since their debacle in Phoenix to start the season. Portland will have fresher legs and a little bit of momentum. This looks to be a theme all season, so apologies in advance if this motif gets redundant, but the Blazers would be sitting pretty well if they could get a solid performance or two out of Lillard and Aldridge's supporting cast.
All said, this is an intriguing matchup for both teams because there are exploitable areas for both sides; Houston has a huge advantage in the paint, on the boards and at the free-throw line but Portland is superior from outside and has guards in both Lillard and Williams who can get past their initial defenders, conceivably opening things up for everyone else.
If the Blazers can establish Aldridge early, hit their outside shots and get some solid contribution from the middle of their rotation, they should be able to weather the storm of Harden and Howard as long as no one else on the Rockets heats up too much. If guys like Caspi, Garcia, Parsons or Lin get their games going, it'll be tough for Portland to bottle them up because their two superstars demand so much individual defensive attention.
Hopefully the Blazers' outside shooting remains a team strength, because they're almost worst in the league at scoring in the middle. Howard and Asik down low won't make scoring in the key any easier. If the Blazers can perform well in their areas of strength -- the one-two punch of Lillard and Aldridge to go along with outside shooting -- the Rockets may not be able to keep up on the second night of a back-to-back. If Portland gets lazy, though, Houston will pound them on the glass, spread the floor and get to the line at will, making life hectic for a Blazers team that needs to improve in those same areas.