Portland Trail Blazers vs. Houston Rockets: Breaking Down the Matchup

Andrew Richardson-USA TODAY Spor

How do the Portland Trail Blazers and Houston Rockets match up for their first-round Western Conference playoff series? Get the numbers, facts, and analysis here.

In just a few days the Blazers will embark on a 4-7 game playoff battle with the Houston Rockets.  As the opening volley of our 2014 Playoff coverage, here are some key issues facing the Blazers as they prepare to face Dwight Howard, James Harden, and friends.

1. Matchups

Matchups, particularly mismatches, take on added importance in the post-season.  Playing a game against a team every two months leaves the vagaries of chance in charge.  Bad nights, hot nights, fatigue and injuries, schedule timing, and the surprise factor make each outing a crap-shoot compared to facing the same opponent 7 straight times.  Pronounced matchup advantages speak louder in the playoffs than they do during the year.

Houston's two stars have proved all but insoluble for the Blazers during the regular season.  Dwight Howard shot 63% against Portland this year, racking up 25.5 points and 13.5 rebounds per game...well above his season averages.  James Harden produced 30 points, 7 rebounds, and 5 assists, all but the last eclipsing his regular-season marks as well.

The story is mixed for the rest of Houston's lineup.  Chandler Parsons' Blazer variance includes losing 4 percentage points off this three-point shooting average but upping his rebounds from 5.5 per game to 13.5.  Patrick Beverley suffers in scoring, assists, and three-point shooting against the Blazers but shoots better overall from the floor, perhaps a side-effect of driving to the hoop.  Jeremy Lin remains even save for a significant drop in his overall shooting percentage (45% to 40%).  Power Forward Terrence Jones is the one Rocket to suffer horribly against the Blazers, his playing time decreasing by 40% and his stats dwindling to insignificance.  The rest of Houston's lineup hasn't played enough games against the Blazers to make a solid judgment.

Fortunately for the Blazers, LaMarcus Aldridge returns the "You Can't Stop Our Star" favor.  He's shooting 50% and averaging 27 points, 15.5 rebounds versus the Rockets, obliterating his season standards.  Houston's power forwards cannot handle him.  On the other end he wraps them up in a bow, sticks a binkie in their mouths, and sends them home to mama.  He is the bright, shining Trail Blazer hope.

Unfortunately Aldridge isn't getting much help from his teammates.  Portland's other All-Star, Damian Lillard, shoots better from distance against the Rockets than against the rest of the league but that's it.  His points, assists, and overall shooting percentage are all down a tick or two...the field goal percentage shrinking from 42% to 39%.  If Aldridge is Portland's Superman in this series, Batman appears to be missing a few items from the utility belt.

Nor have the rest of the SuperFriends acquitted themselves well against the Rockets' Legion of Doom.  Nicolas Batum's scoring drops from 13 to 10.5, his field goal percentage from 46.5% to 40.5%, his three-point percentage from 36% to 23.5% against Houston.  Wesley Matthews scores more, 20 ppg against his 16.5 season average.  But the increase comes from shot volume and free throw attempts.  His overall shooting percentage drops from 44% to 42% versus the Rockets, his three-point percentage from 39% to 31%.  Robin Lopez remains steady with an increase in field goal percentage but a slight decrease in rebounding.  His big issue is the near-doubling of personal fouls per game against the Rockets.  Mo Williams scores evenly but his field goal percentage sinks to 38% and his three-point percentage plummets, 37% during the season to 20% versus Houston.

Tallying up, we find that Houston fields 2 shiny, unstoppable superstars against 1 for Portland.  Houston's supporting cast tends towards average with a severe drop for Jones, a slight decrease for Lin, and a whopping increase in Parsons' rebounding.  Portland's supporting cast doesn't fare as well with a particular decrease in Batum's effectiveness and some worrisome signs from Lillard.

2. Strengths and Weaknesses

Individual matchups don't tell the whole story.  Style and team strengths can mesh or clash.  Here's a comparison of the Blazers and Rockets in several key statistical categories, listing their league rank out of 30 teams.

OFF HOU


OFF POR


DEF HOU


DEF POR


PPG


2

3

23

22

OFF/DEF EFF


6

4

11

16

PTS in Paint


2

28

19

28

FastBRK PTS


3

22

22

17

FG%


5

14

6

11

3PT%


16

9

9

14

FTA/Game


1

13

11

9

FT%


28

1

-

-

OffREB%


9

3

19

14

DefREB%


19

14

9

3

TotREB%


1

7

-

-

Block%


5

20

27

5

AST per Poss


25

10

14

4

TO per Poss


29

4

26

30

Looking for advantages and disadvantages we find:

Points Per Game: Both teams score plenty and allow plenty.  Though it's not reflected in the chart, this is less a case of impotent defense and more about both teams ranking top-10 in pace and racking up big True Shooting Percentages due to free throws and three-pointers.  Houston ranks 3rd in TS%, the Blazers 11th.

Offensive and Defensive Efficiency: Both teams field efficient offenses.  The Blazers are middle-of-the-road defensively, the Rockets slightly better.

Points in the Paint: Here we run into our first huge mismatch.  The Rockets pour in points from the lane (2nd overall) and the Blazers don't stop those (28th).  Houston's own paint defense is modest but the Blazers don't score in the lane either.

Fast Break Points: The Rockets score heavily on the break where the Blazers defend at an average level.  Houston doesn't always get back in transition but the Blazers don't run out much either.  Nevertheless, don't be surprised if you hear Terry Stotts urging his charges to hustle down the floor, not just for the overt score but to run the offense before Houston can set up.

Field Goal Percentage: As you might expect from a paint-scoring team versus jump-shooting specialists, the Rockets outclass the Blazers in overall shooting percentage.  The problem for Portland is that the Rockets are also 6th in the league in field goal percentage allowed.  The Blazers aren't bad at 11th, but they're losing this battle on both ends of the court.

Three-Point Percentage: Houston is average here while the Blazers, as expected, are good.  The inverse is true on defense by ranking, though the percentage difference between Portland's and Houston's 3PT% allowed is small.  Nevertheless, this isn't a comfortable edge overall for the Blazers in one of their key categories.

Foul Shots: The Rockets draw more than anybody but hit at a low percentage.  (Thanks, Dwight Howard!)  The Blazers attempt an average number but hit a higher percentage than anybody.  In practice Houston scores +3 points from the foul line on average compared to the Blazers.

Rebounding: Both teams do well on the boards, Portland on the offensive glass in particular.  This can be a weakness for Houston and it's an area where the Blazers will want to take advantage.  It'll be interesting to see if tension develops between Portland's desire for second-chance points and their need to get back in transition.

Blocks: Houston blocks plenty of shots but also gets their own shots blocked.  The Blazers don't block shots but seldom get their own rejected either.  This can be chalked up to a paint-scoring team versus a jump-shooting squad.  Attempts in traffic get swatted more.

Assists: The Blazers rank near the top of the league at preventing assists but the Rockets need comparatively few.  The Blazers are in the middle of the field in assists per possession and the Rockets are average defending them.

Turnovers: The Rockets are 29th in committing turnovers, a potentially serious failing.  Unfortunately the Blazers are last in the league at forcing turnovers.  Something's got to give there.  The Blazers might be hoping to steal a quarter or two, maybe even a game, by taking advantage of Houston miscues.  Portland should have little to worry about on the other end.  The Blazers don't give up the ball and the Rockets don't force it away.  Seeing the Blazers committing turnovers would be a bad sign, perhaps the straw that breaks the camel's back.

Neither team is bulletproof in this matchup.  Each can be exploited.  But the Rockets have a few strengths that the Blazers don't match well: points in the paint, fast break points, field goal percentage advantages.  Portland's strengths--rebounding, three-point percentage, free throw percentage, offensive efficiency--seem to be matched or countered by their opponent.  The Blazers aren't naturally suited to take advantage of Houston's weaknesses either.  You'd be surprised to see a team dominate this series completely, but Houston has the edge on average...another mountain for the Blazers to climb.

3. Halfcourt Execution

In the post-season each possession is valued and play usually slows accordingly.  Teams live or die by their halfcourt offenses and defenses.

Houston's advantage in the halfcourt is their "set it and forget it" style.  When they need points they create a mismatch with Howard or let Harden create.  If either of those two are on, they don't have a problem.  Their jump shooting serves to clear lane space for the stars but it's not the staple of their diet.  They want paint points, foul shots, and threes and rely on their main guys to set up all of them.  If their small forward isn't hitting the bail-out three, Harden will just pass up that option an take the shot on his own.

Portland, by contrast, uses star play to clear space for their jump shooters and those triples.  LaMarcus Aldridge is one of the league's best scorers but his offense isn't usually efficient enough to ride on its own.  Portland can't survive with just one or two players doing well.  They need a strong-side attack, crisp passing, failed rotations from the defense, and good marksmanship on the weak side.  It's a better team system than the Rockets employ but more things can go wrong with it as well.  If one part of the offense fails--say Wesley Matthews missing open threes--the whole tends to break down.

Houston's superstar-laden attack creates more problems for Portland's defense than the Blazers' attack creates for Houston.  Both systems will yield points.  Either team can explode at any time.  But the Rockets have more of an option to live with Aldridge's points and straight-cover everyone else than the Blazers do to defend Howard and Harden one-on-one.

The Blazers will probably have to decide which Houston superstar they want to concentrate on and leave the other in single coverage.  That's more of a "hope it works" plan than a solid path to victory.  The Rockets, on the other hand, will make Aldridge prove that he's going to repeat his  31-point performance in Portland's only win against Houston this season before they start doubling him hard.  LaMarcus is more than capable.  The question is, for how many games?  Until shown otherwise, Houston will bet that number will be less than four.

If Aldridge does burn the Rockets consistently they still have the option of doubling him immediately, taking the ball out of his hands.  They'll suffer some points scored, but they may claim that no amount of points from Matthews, Batum, and Lopez will beat them if Aldridge isn't dominant..

In short, the Blazers are looking at Houston's halfcourt attack and trying to figure out how to take out everything, knowing the Rockets can be successful following any number of straight lines to victory.  The Rockets are looking at Portland's attack and trying to figure out how to take out anything, knowing that Portland depends on synergy to survive.  The former task is harder than the latter.

The big wrinkles, the huge potential difference-makers for the Blazers, will be forced turnovers and offensive rebounds.  The first denies shots to the opponent, the second grants extra shots to oneself.  The Blazers need to push these potential advantages hard.  Generating more shots than the Rockets is the best way to make Portland's efficiency tell.  Not even superstars can create shots that aren't there.  Nor can any amount of name-dropping change the laws of mathematics that say a decent percentage on 87 shots usually beats a decent percentage on 81 shots.

4. Adjustments

The Rockets are neither the most flexible nor the most cohesive team in the league.  Their Plan A is pretty solid.  Plan B usually involves bringing in a good bench player to jump start Plan A, maybe filling in when a superstar is faltering until said superstar can regain his feet.  Plan C is a loss.  But with big matchup advantages and a bench including Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik, the Rockets don't have to be the most flexible team in the world to win this series.  They'll live with the faux-flexibility of, "Harden only shot 1-4 this quarter.  Let's give it to him 12 times in the next period and let him hit or draw foul shots.  Meanwhile Lin, go drive and dish on Lillard."

As much as you want to root for their spirit and progress, the Blazers field one of the weakest benches in the league.  It's highlighted by "shoot you in or shoot you out" Mo Williams, bolstered lately by a more consistent, yet still mercurial, Thomas Robinson and a mostly-flat-lined Dorell Wright.  Lin and Asik would instantly become the best players off of Portland's pines.  Nor do the Blazer starters have extra tricks up their sleeves.  Each player can surprise on a given night--Matthews with a few post-ups, Batum with a dribble-drive, Lopez with a face-up jumper--but 7-game series are about consistent averages peppered by the occasional great performance.  Popcorn contributions could carry you in the old 3- or 5-game series, not so much anymore.

Damian Lillard is the big, adjustable part in Portland's offensive machine.  He's got a million tricks up his sleeve and the talent to succeed with any of them.  The big question for Lillard, and thus for the Blazers, will be whether his flexibility can be integrated with the otherwise-systemic offense or whether he will produce instead of running the normal sets.  When Lillard excels and blends, this team is a force to be reckoned with.  When he's the default iso option because everything else is going wrong success seldom follows, at least not against good teams.

Nicolas Batum provides a second wildcard.  Snapping out of his Houston-funk, staying aggressive for the entire series, and diverting the attention of Houston's defense to a third player would make Portland's attack more diverse and effective.  The Rockets might succeed by bowling over Portland's defense when the Blazers are looking right at them.  The Blazers will succeed by making the Rockets have to look everywhere at once.

In the end, neither of these teams is going to be comfortable deviating from their initial plan.  Houston may be more adaptable by virtue of depth and experience alone but they're not going to want to face any reality that doesn't involve Howard and Harden dominating.  Given that, a foolproof way to determine who has the advantage will be watching which team makes the other one blink first.  The team scrambling will end up losing.

5. Conclusion

Both of these teams are good.  Houston just hits the Blazers in spots where the Blazers will have trouble compensating.  Meanwhile the Blazers can see the Rockets' weak spots but may have trouble reaching them.  It feels like a contest between two accomplished prize fighters, except one has a better left hand to go with his right and boasts a 4-inch reach advantage as well.  If we see the standard game from the Rockets versus the standard game from the Blazers, Houston is going to walk with this series.

The Blazers will have to find a way inside Houston's guard and make every punch count.  The onus is on Portland to come up with something more: focus, intensity, cohesion, killer instinct, turnover-creating defense, bench contributions...they need something.  Given their decent, but not great, performance against quality teams overall and their much less than decent performance against Western Conference playoff teams in the second half of the season (particularly on the road), they're going to have to dig pretty deep to find enough to pull them through.  If nothing goes wrong with Houston or really right with the Blazers, a series victory will be a tough order to fill.

And that, folks, is just the start.  Stay with us throughout the week as we talk even more Blazers-Rockets in preparation for the amazing rush of Game 1!

--Dave (blazersub@gmail.com)

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