Portland Trail Blazers vs. Houston Rockets: Defense, Chemistry, Twists, and 54 Wins

Steve Dykes-USA TODAY Sports

The Blazer's Edge Mailbag covers all your last-minute playoff questions including Portland's chances, defense, twists and wrinkles, plus the significance of 54 wins.

It's time for a post-season edition of the Blazer's Edge Mailbag!

Hello Dave,

Is it all doom and gloom thinking about the dominance of Howard and Harden or does Portland have a bona fide chance at getting through the first round? The element that sticks in my mind is the performance of Robin Lopez and his ability to be effective at both ends without getting into foul trouble. Give me some hope here Dave!

Stephen

It's a multi-textured question. Let's break it down.

Personally I don't read the stats saying Howard and Harden have succeeded against Portland this year and see doom and gloom. I think this is an important distinction. The temptation as a die-hard fan is to start with the assumption that your team will prevail and view anything south of that as negative. That's a legit approach but doesn't leave much room for discussion. Another approach is to look at the stats, history, experience, or what have you, then assess the road ahead. Most of the time you'll find that road running south of "automatic win for your side". Sometimes it runs significantly south. But that road always offers a fork between winning and losing. The branch towards winning may be narrow, but it's there.

For a variety of reasons the road before the Blazers against the Rockets looks steep. It's not the best matchup in the world for them. If both teams repeat their prior performance--judging by stats against each other, wins against good teams, star-power, or almost any metric--the Rockets will prevail. That doesn't mean the Blazers CAN'T win. That means the onus is on Portland to come up with something new or better, to change this series before it gets too far down that road, to make the Rockets take a detour they don't want to take.

Understanding this, we're able to ask the right questions about this matchup. Those aren't, "How great are we?" or "How high is our destiny?" It's, "How do we solve this issue? What wrinkles can we throw into the plan? Where's the crack to leverage?" We can also appreciate the effort that will go into turning this series to Portland's side, not just an emotional upset victory but an indication of smart, coordinated, well-executed basketball. And by the way, Portland's potential second-round opponent--even if it's San Antonio--will not present the same matchup struggles that Houston does. If the Blazers can get past the first round, they have the potential to surprise the league in a series that absolutely nobody will pick them to win. In fact that second round could not be set up better for the Blazers. All the worst opponents for them are on the other side of the bracket. So again, this is not a matter of "Blazers gloomy, everybody else good." It's about what particular teams do against each other in particular matchups.

So yes, the Blazers do have a chance of getting through the first round. It will not be easy, but it's there. And it will remain there until the final horn sounds on their fourth loss.

As far as Lopez, I agree with you in general but again this particular matchup creates particular problems that belie the overall look. It's kind of the same thing as people saying, "The Blazers won 54 and Houston won 54 so they're even." In general, true. But when you start to look at things like record against above-.500 teams and head-to-head performances, the story isn't even anymore. Basically the more easy opponents you factor into the analysis the more equal these teams look. But zero easy opponents will be participating in the Western Conference playoffs this year. The general look doesn't tell the story.

In general Lopez has done well, avoided fouls, played nice defense in the lane. But when you start to parse that down you see holes in the general approach. The biggest is Howard dominating him and the Blazers this year. He's not equipped to handle Dwight. Few players are. That's no insult to Robin, but it's there. Also his general lack of foul trouble doesn't hold against Houston. Lopez is at 2.4 fouls per game against the league but 4.6 against the Rockets, almost double. Plus the lack of taking fouls has allowed opponents to score plenty in the lane against the Blazers, a factor which the Rockets will be able to exploit, being one of the best paint-scoring teams in the league. Lopez has done well defensively but it's not like Portland's defense has been airtight, nor will it be in this series.

I would say the best hopes of an unforeseen Portland edge come from Nicolas Batum improving his so-far unsatisfactory performance against the Rockets or Damian Lillard finding another gear. We've seen Wesley Matthews and Mo Williams explode in certain games this season. Maybe that could tip one Portland's direction.

But I'm going to be honest with you. The team that says, "Maybe we could..." and "If this happens..." usually loses in the playoffs. The general rule is, when you're absolutely sure you're going to win this series for definable, grounded reasons you have a chance. (Not a guaranteed victory, but a chance.) Over the course of 7 games those "ifs" and "maybes" usually don't come true often enough. The underdog had more of a chance when first-round series were 5 games long.

Dave,

There's been lots of talk about Houston's chemistry and emotional state.  What's your assessment?  Is it something we can exploit?

Greeley Dan

As I said in one of the series previews, Houston isn't the strongest team in the universe mentally.  But no one factor is likely to tip the odds.

At a basic level the goal of any playoff series is to put the opponent under more pressure than they put you under.  You want to expose their cracks, hiding your own.  Truth be told, when the Blazers run out of options and ideas they tend towards quarters of fragility themselves.  They've gotten away with it multiple times in the regular season but the playoffs are a different animal.  Series turn on single quarters.  Portland wants to make Houston's series turn on a weak performance instead of the other way around.  If they play well enough, they might be able to do it.

One way to think of the Howard-Harden duo is like a tennis doubles team.  The strategy there is simple: hit the ball down the middle and make them make decisions.  Either one of them alone could probably handle either hit but when you require them to communicate, trust, read each other, and act in concert cracks can appear.

The Blazers probably want to think "down the middle" literally when facing Houston's defense, trying to exploit Harden and put pressure on Howard to cover for him.  Unfortunately this isn't Wesley Matthews' forte.  It'd be easier if Harden guarded Lillard.  Either way, though, the Blazers need to find the cracks and put pressure on the Rockets to cover for each other.

If they start failing in that department, if the Blazers can run up the score a little, then the Rockets are forced to make it up on the other end.  At that point, who puts the team on their shoulders?  "Me!" says Harden.  And just maybe, "Me!" says Howard.  Now the ball is hit down the middle between Houston's offensive players as well.

if the Blazers make the game easy on the Rockets, though--holding the ball, attacking predictably, settling for jumpers, slowing the game--the pressure will lower and both Houston superstars will coexist easily.

Dave,

I'd love to see some analysis on the coaching matchups. Stotts has really won me over this year, but McHale is scary and has a LOT of experience as a player. How do you see the matchup?

Thomas

Coaches are made by their players. If Howard and Harden go out there and beast, I'm not sure any coaching scheme in the world can stop them. Not every loss or shortcoming is game-plan related. Sometimes you have a great game plan that just doesn't work because the forces against you are too strong. It's like game-planning to ski down an avalanche. Yes, form and route matter, but in the end you better hope the force of nature isn't at its strongest or you'll get buried despite your otherwise-fine technique.

Right now it looks like McHale has a little easier road than Stotts and certainly has simpler game plan options. When in doubt, Howard/Harden. How much coaching do you need to figure out that's your default option?

Stotts, on the other hand, has to figure out how to corral at least one of those two stars, allowing the rest of his defense to tell and his offense to supersede. Fortunately Stotts has proven more than apt at team scheming and at helping his guys pull in the same direction for a good cause...I'd say far more than McHale has with his club. If anything, this is the kind of challenge Stotts appears to relish. I would not bet against him and the Blazers putting on a better show than most expect, defying the numbers and history. Whether that will be enough remains to be seen, though. You can compensate, maybe even surprise, your way to wins, but 4 of them in 7 chances?

I suppose I'd say I like Stotts as a coach for the Trail Blazers in this situation. I like his chances at getting the most out of his team. This team is in good hands. But McHale also understands what he's doing and probably has the easier road. McHale will be judged on results alone. We may have to nuance the evaluation of Stotts a little more, figuring in process as well.

Yo Dave,

Give one unexpected development from the Blazers as a team, rather than from an individual perspective.  We know that Dame and Nic need to step up.  What team scheme could turn the tide?

Elliot

First, check this post from Dane Carbaugh if you haven't already.  He has a few ideas.

If I could think of a sure-fire series-changer I'd be calling Coach Stotts, not writing a Mailbag.  But one that comes to mind is the perhaps-underutilized zone defense to keep the Rockets thinking.

Obviously the Blazers won't be able to employ a steady diet of zone. They haven't run it enough and Houston would adjust.  But in short bursts a zone does most of what the Blazers would like.  It keeps the center in the middle of the floor.  It stops penetration.  It depends on length and defensive reading ability more than lateral speed.  It provides quicker help.  Nor do the Rockets have a high-post big to auto-break it.  They do have three-point shooters but most of their best shots come off the catch once the defense is bent, not as a primary method of breaking that defense.  The Blazers would have to live with certain shots but they wouldn't necessarily be Harden penetrating or Howard bulling his way inside.  The Blazers would also have to rebound...more difficult in a zone but critical against the Rockets.

It's not a catch-all solution, but it shouldn't be an alien concept either.  The surprise factor alone, especially coming from Portland, could provide enough of a twist to change one of those critical quarters we just talked about.

Dave,

54 wins makes me a very happy Blazer fan this year. That's the same record as Miami! Miami! That's good stuff right there! My question is what you think this means for the future. This has got to be a huge step right? Then I think of winning 54 in 2009 and that didn't work out. This is just the beginning right? Which do you think is more important this 54 or 2009?

Shannon

54 wins is an amazing mark, far higher than I thought the Blazers would achieve this year and well above most reasonable estimates. It's a big deal for this team, validation, something to hang their hats on.

It's also a useful cheerleading/morale tool, something we'll no doubt be reminded of over the summer and into next fall. Both the mark and phrases like "Same Record as Miami" make for great copy. We should enjoy that while realizing its limitations.

As I've said a couple times in the comment section, the 50-win plateau was hardly exclusive territory this season. 7 teams in the West achieved that mark and 2 more came close. That's the third-highest number of 50-win teams in the playoffs ever. Houston, Dallas, Phoenix, Memphis, Golden State, et al will ALL be selling their teams as the "special ones" next season. That can't be true for everybody. Nor are phrases like "Same record as Miami" really that meaningful unless Miami has the best record in the league. Did the Blazers have the same record as San Antonio? Oklahoma City? That was the "special", distinctive mark to shoot for this year.

The Blazers did well. The win inflation across the upper half of the Western Conference makes it difficult to judge what that "well" really means. The result of the season was more like "Survivor" than an Olympics podium. They didn't win 40 when everybody else was in the 50's. They didn't get voted off the island early. That's great. But that gives little indication of whether they'll actually end up winning the thing someday. A whole group of competitors can say the same thing.

Time will tell about eventual impact, but right now I consider the 2009 mark more significant as an isolated event. In 2009 the Blazers were the youngest team to win that many games EVER in the history of the league. It wasn't just token young, where the core stars were veterans surrounded by a bunch of rookies. The main stars of that squad were in the infancy of their careers. 54 wins was the BEGINNING, less an achievement than the first baby steps. Plus the Blazers had draft picks and potential cap flexibility ahead of them. The world was right there for the taking. 2014 has been great but the core of this team is slightly older while the main star, LaMarcus Aldridge, is in his prime. The Blazers don't have a pick this year and won't be able to retain this core and cap flexibility going forward. There are reasons to be optimistic here, but 2009 buried us under an avalanche of opportunities for anticipation.

That said, 2009 didn't lead to anything but injuries and disappointment, so obviously if your criteria is, "more important" you'd have to point to this year simply because it still has a chance to be important where that event ultimately wasn't.

And there you have it folks.  After 10,000+ words on this matchup over the last few days we are finally ready.  Chris Lucia will have his Game 1 Preview up for you to chat in all day.  Timmay will have the Gameday Threads ready to go this evening.  The next time we speak will be after the first game of the 2014 NBA Playoffs for your Portland Trail Blazers, hopefully after a Big Win.  We'll see you with the post-game recap.  In the meantime, enjoy the Blazer Fan's version of Christmas.  The playoffs are here!

--Dave (blazersub@gmail.com)

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