In preparation for the first-round playoff series between the Portland Trail Blazers and Houston Rockets, Patrick Harrel from SBNation's The Dream Shake and I engaged in a little Q&A. Here's a look straight into the mind of someone who knows the Rockets well.
Blazersedge: What natural advantages do you feel the Rockets have in this series? Which things make you say, "If the Rockets just do this, it's in the bag?"
Patrick Harrel: The Rockets have an advantage in that they have the best player on the floor in James Harden. If Harden is clicking, it's going to be hard to stop the Rockets offense. As the Blazers saw as Harden hit a game-tying three in season's final matchup between the two teams, when Harden is making his shots, no amount of defense can stop him.
BE: What weak spots do you worry about Portland (or some other playoff team, eventually) exploiting?
PH: The Rockets' porous perimeter defense is definitely a concern with Damian Lillard, Nicolas Batum, and Wesley Matthews on the outside. Beverley is an excellent defender, but he is coming off a torn meniscus, and the rest of the Rockets' perimeter rotation does not inspire much confidence against opposing guards.
BE: What things about the Blazers, in particular, make you worry?
PH: LaMarcus Aldridge presents a number of issues for the Rockets' defense. How they defend him may dictate how the series sways. Terrence Jones is long and athletic, but he's a pretty average defender and struggles against bigger opponents, so putting him on Aldridge might be an issue. However, if the team sticks Howard or Asik on Aldridge, then Jones will have to deal with Robin Lopez. Can Jones stick with either player? That big man combination might hurt the Rockets if Jones does not step up.
BE: From afar Dwight Howard seems like a mixed blessing. He's not the player he once was, but he's still capable of greatness. That said, he seems to want to be treated like the superstar, focal-point of the team but he hasn't been capable of putting a team on his back and taking them to a title. Even watching him mostly during Portland-Houston matchups he's exhibited some of the most glorious play and some of the most dejected, abandon-ship body language we've seen all year. How do you feel about Dwight? How has his first year in Houston hit you? How much confidence do you have in his game? Do you worry about his approach or attitude at all?
PH: I would say that my reaction to him has not been as pointed as yours. To me, he has been a solid contributor on both sides of the ball and an excellent teammate. He is not the player he was in Orlando, who was arguably the third most dominant player in the league, but he is nowhere near the player he was in Los Angeles either. He's helped a defense that was fairly mediocre last year jump into the top ten (until an ankle injury knocked him out for a while at the end of the season), and has meshed well with Harden and Parsons. I don't think people expected to see the Orlando Magic Dwight Howard, and they certainly haven't gotten him. Still, he's been a supremely valuable player, and the Rockets would not be where they are today without him.
BE: Over the last few weeks the Rockets have had a couple health scares. How's the injury status heading into the playoffs?
PH: It looks as if the team got healthy just in time. Patrick Beverley and Dwight Howard returned from injury for the last few games of the regular season, and no other regulars have been out as of late. James Harden has been dealing with a bum ankle all season, and Beverley and Howard still are question marks because of their recent injuries, but it appears as though the Rockets are going into the postseason with about as good health as they could hope for.
BE: If you could pick one or two factors around which this series will turn (one or two for each team, if you prefer), what would they be?
PH: Turnovers. The Rockets have been the worst team in the league in terms of protecting the ball, and if they keep up that trend, the speedsters like Lillard and Batum on the Blazers could really hurt the Rockets in transition. If the Rockets want to win this series, they have to make sure the Blazers don't take them out of the game with too many turnovers.
Thanks to Patrick for the time and the info. You can find my answers to his questions right here.