The Blazers ride a five-game wining streak into the Toyota Center tonight to take on the Rockets in Houston.
The Rockets, like Portland, score a ton of points but also give up a decent amount to opponents. Right now, Houston power forward Terrence Jones is blossoming into a legitimate force down low, averaging over 21 points a game, 12 rebounds and three blocks per contest in his last five. Jones is effective mostly at the rim, attempting the vast majority of his shots inside. Even though Jones has exploded onto the scene recently, it's worth noting that in his two previous games against the Blazers he's averaged just five points and one rebound in limited minutes.
Houston draws more free-throw opportunities than any other team in the NBA, largely led by the efforts of Jones, guard James Harden and center Dwight Howard. Unfortunately for the Rockets, even though they shoot more free-throws than anyone, they're also one of the league's worst teams in percentage due in large part to Howard's consistent struggles at the line.
Harden is a volume shooter, varying his shot-attempts somewhat evenly between the paint, the mid-range and from behind the three-point line. He's not the most efficient player from anywhere on the floor, but Harden is able to bolster his scoring output by drawing fouls. He also leads the team in assists and contributes six rebounds a night from the wing, so his impression is felt in multiple facets of the game. Though Harden's defense has come under scrutiny this season, teammates and fans are noting that his effort on that end of the court has been much more consistent the last handful of games.
Howard is shooting well and often this season, though his shots come almost exclusively from within a few feet of the basket. Lately, he's settled into a 20/10 role as he and Jones have combined to form one of the best starting frontcourt tandems in the NBA. Howard's foul-shooting is still atrocious, though, and regardless of the 9.2 attempts per game he he's averaged behind the line in his nine-year career, he still makes only about half of them.
Small forward Chandler Parsons is taking a ton of shots but still rounding into playing form after recently missing a stretch of games. He either takes the ball to the hoop or shoots the three-pointer, and lately his reliable outside shot has buoyed his scoring output, as Parson's only hitting about 35 percent of his overall field-goals since coming back from injury. Against the Blazers in two games this season, he's been even worse, connecting on only 34.5 percent of his shots.
Point guard Jeremy Lin has seen his starting role and playing time handled inconsistently by Houston coach Kevin McHale, and it may be affecting his overall game because he's making less than 20 percent of his three-pointers and just 44 percent of all his field-goals. Lin's assist totals are up lately, so he's been willing and able to find teammates even if his own shot's been a bit off the last several games. Point guard Patrick Beverley has tonight's game circled for his return from a nagging hand injury, so Lin may be relegated to a sixth-man role again if McHale gives Beverley his starting position back tonight. Beverley doesn't score or distribute the ball as well as Lin, but he also commits fewer turnovers and has a reputation as a gritty defender. One interesting storyline tonight will be watching how McHale handles his point guard rotation, because backup point Aaron Brooks also saw a slight bump in his minutes with Beverley out earlier.
The frontcourt rotation of Howard, Jones and forward Donatas Motiejunas has been potent lately, as all three are hitting at least 55 percent of their field-goals. Wing Omri Casspi also contributes off the bench, and his best ability right now is probably his three-point shooting, connecting on almost 39 percent of his tries from deep.
As mentioned earlier, Houston relies more on outscoring and out-maneuvering opponents on the offensive end, employing a pretty average defense in a lot of ways. They can be scored on inside and they'll also allow shots to be attempted from behind the arc, but to their credit, the Rockets do keep opponents' field-goal percentages pretty low even though they allow a ton of shots to be taken. If Beverley's back at full-strength tonight, Houston's perimeter defense will be solidified. Portland point guard Damian Lillard has shot terribly against the Rockets in two games so far this season, and Beverley was matched up across from him for much of those games. Houston can have the ball pushed against them and they'll allow some ball-movement at times, but neither is a position of weakness for the team's defense. In the first meeting of the two teams, the Blazers hit 10 of 31 three-pointers in a loss, followed by an 8-27 performance from downtown in a win five weeks later, so Houston definitely has the ability to slow Portland's long-range attack.
The Blazers are seeing continued superstar-level play from forward LaMarcus Aldridge, who's hitting almost 55 percent of his 21.2 shots per night recently while pacing the team with 29 points per game in that span. Lillard's taken a bit of a backseat to Aldridge of late, with his shooting percentage slipping below 40 percent and his outside shot dipping about 7 percentage points below its season average, hovering at a still-solid 36.4 percent over the last five games. Lillard is still racking up decent assist numbers, but wing Nicolas Batum has really come alive in the passing game, leading the team in assists lately.
Batum is also a reliable scorer for Portland from both inside and out, though guard Wesley Matthews contributes more with his own scoring and has recovered his early-season shooting form from deep, connecting on half his threes during this five-game winning streak. Guard Mo Williams is still Blazers coach Terry Stotts' sixth-man, but his scoring has actually been a bit less efficient than that of rookie guard C.J. McCollum. Williams is still the better ball-handler and distributor right now, though, and his minutes haven't dropped off even with McCollum's encouraging play. Wings Dorell Wright and Will Barton have felt the minutes crunch most, with both losing huge chunks of playing time in recent weeks.
Center Robin Lopez has continued to be a force with second-chance points, also emerging as a legitimate safety-valve for teammates to dish the ball off to when confronted with double-teams. Backup big men Thomas Robinson and Joel Freeland are making pretty good use of limited minutes and shot-attempts, with Robinson playing more in-control now following a temporary restriction on minutes imposed by Stotts a few weeks ago.
The Rockets have three great individual rebounders in Howard, Jones and Motiejunas. Casspi and Parsons are also both decent contributors on the glass from the wing. As a team, the Rockets are pretty average rebounders overall, though they're better on the offensive end than the defensive end, which could spell trouble against a team like Portland that thrives on its offensive-rebounding ability behind the efforts of Lopez, Freeland and Robinson. Defensively, Aldridge is one of the best rebounders in the league right now and Batum is really making his presence felt on the boards this year, bringing in more rebounds than all but a few small forwards across the NBA. Portland got crushed on the glass when they lost to Houston early on in the season, but edged them 52-48 in rebounds when they beat the Rockets five weeks ago, so the rebounding battle should be just as important tonight.
In both meetings between the teams so far this year, free-throws helped catapult each team to a win. Rebounds were also huge. Harden and Howard have gone off for big games each time they've faced Portland, but Jones' recent stretch of improved play will add a new wrinkle for the Blazers' defense to keep in mind. Likewise, Aldridge's last game against the Rockets was a 31-point, 25-rebound signature performance, and his recent output has been phenomenal.
If Houston can stifle Aldridge -- not entirely likely, considering how well he's been playing -- they'll have the inside track on a win tonight. Still, the Blazers are on a roll right now and have put together solid road victories against the Spurs and the Mavericks halfway through this difficult road trip, so their confidence level is likely soaring pretty high right now. Houston has also won four of its last five games, and has played pretty well lately with only a few exceptions, so a high-scoring, close game could be in store for tonight.
-- Chris Lucia | email@example.com | Twitter