As we head into Game 2 of the Portland Trail Blazers-Houston Rockets matchup it's time to ask the question on everyone's mind: How much carry-over will Portland's Game 1 victory provide for the second contest and the rest of the series?
Reasons to Be Positive
The Blazers won. This puts the pressure squarely in the laps of the Rockets. Houston can't lose Game 2, which changes the complexion in several ways.
Part of the Game 1 story was Houston going brain-dead in critical moments. Since more moments in Game 2 will be critical, the theory will get tested again in anything short of a blowout.
But even more interestingly, the Blazers are going to see Houston's core game and Big Adjustments on full display in this game. The Rockets can't screw around. They have to take their best shot, playing as if their backs were against the wall. The Blazers get a preview of a Game 6 or Game 7 situation in the second game of the series. They have up to 5 games to counter.
Portland's close, clutch win in Game 1 will be on the minds of the Rockets if Game 2 stays close as well. If the Rockets go up but the Blazers come back--Portland's specialty this year--Houston might start wondering what they have to do to beat these guys. This creates a nifty situation for Portland. If they surge ahead in the game...opportunity. If it's nip and tuck...opportunity. If the Blazers get down...opportunity. That's the magic of 1-0 on the road versus 0-1. But unless the Blazers win it's also a one-night only deal. If Houston deals with their demons and puts the Blazers away without too much trouble, Game 3 starts the series anew.
Portland's superstars outplayed their Houston counterparts handily on Sunday. Since Damian Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge comprise 2 of the 3 most reliable Blazers this season and since Aldridge has destroyed the Rockets all year, excellent play should become the norm. The Blazers have shown that they present riddles that Houston will have a hard time solving. Making Houston adjust instead of having to adjust to them is a victory for Portland, as are most defensive permutations the Rockets could employ to stop Portland's Top 2, particularly Aldridge.
Several Blazers put in sub-par performances in the first game. There's room to grow. (Though it should be noted that most of those also under-performed against Houston during the regular season, so this could be a pattern and thus a negative for Portland.)
The Blazers were able to score in the lane and at the line, negating most or all of Houston's considerable advantage in those areas. If that keeps up, the Rockets are in trouble.
Most of all, this is a no-lose situation for Portland. If they win, they sit in the driver's seat. If they lose they still split. They won't be looking at it that way, of course, but the end result will be the same. It's like playing with house money in the casino. You still want to win but even if you bust, you still walk out with your wallet intact and ready to try again.
Reasons for Concern
The result of Game 1 was conclusive...the victory meaningful for all the reasons listed above. The applicability of Game 1 to future games remains in doubt. It was an odd evening with several unlikely-to-be-repeated features.
The refs rank chief among these. With the whistles blowing one-way in the first half and every-which-way in the second and overtime, I'm not sure we got a clear picture of these teams.
The Blazers' stars were a definite plus, but the Blazers needed a lot of plus to eke out that 2-point, overtime win.
Hack-a-Dwight played a prominent role in bringing the Blazers back from a mid-fourth-period, double-digit deficit. It was the most effective result from any hacking strategy I can remember seeing. Mostly that strategy fails, or at least fails to produce that kind of result. The Blazers may not be able to wiggle out that way again. (Let's put it this way, if offered the chance to be down double-digits in the fourth in each remaining game of the series, depending on hacking to help get them back, the Blazers would politely decline.)
To the extent that we did see both teams running fairly normally on Sunday, the Blazers created a first-quarter surge which was immediately countered by the Rockets. The Rockets also built a lead in the fourth period before Howard missed all those free throws. In the parts of the game that looked most normal, Houston gained and preserved more of an advantage than the Blazers did.
When they did bother to drive the lane the Rockets met no appreciable resistance. Howard also had a field day against single coverage most of the game. Despite the win, the Blazers never solved these problems. Either Houston didn't press the advantage or the Blazers had to foul to maintain it.
The best conclusion is that we don't know anything, save the Blazers are up 1-0 in the series. If you're Portland you like the cracks in Houston's armor and their lack of smarts and cohesiveness compared to your own team. If you're Houston you like that the Blazers needed a very odd game in which their stars played at a historically high level in order to eke out a 2-point overtime win. Personally I don't think we've seen the real version of either of these teams yet.
From Portland's perspective it's probably best to treat this series as if it were still 0-0. The Blazers need to come in just as hungry and be just as willing to grasp at any straw to turn the tables on the Rockets. If Portland comes in playing normally and at ease. the Rockets are likely to hand them their lunch. The road split will carry over, but momentum and psychological advantage will diminish.
If the Blazers can secure a second victory, however, they don't just have the Rockets back on their heels, but flat on their butts wondering what happened. The Rockets have more to lose than to gain in this game. The inverse is true for the Blazers. That's the nice part about being Portland right now. They just have to make sure they're ready for Houston's attack and that they don't let their advantageous position lull them into complacency.