Houston wanted Portland. Portland wanted to be back in the playoffs. The media wanted Houston to win in 6, maybe 7 games. The fans wanted a great series. As of now only the fans and Portland are really happy with what they’ve had so far. No one inside of Portland will argue with the results - save for those who thirsted for blood and a first round sweep- elsewhere, folks are left scratching their heads as LaMarcus Aldridge has had arguably the greatest back to back playoff games in recent memory, a 2nd year point guard who’s tasting playoffs for the first time in Damian Lillard has looked anything but a playoff rookie, James Harden has failed to deliver, a D-League call up hit a game winning shot, and the obscure team from the Northwest with little national exposure is putting on some of the most entertaining basketball night in and night out.
Going into Game 4, Portland takes a 2-1 series lead into the Moda Center Sunday night with a chance to go back to Houston up 3-1 and a near lock to win the series or making the kind of mistake the Memphis Grizzlies made Saturday afternoon in letting the higher seed get back into the series and take back home court at 2-2. For those who have been watching the playoffs this season, many games are coming down to a couple of key plays Erik Gunderson of the Columbian got Robin Lopez to say as much:
"I think that game did a good job of putting the whole series in perspective," said center Robin Lopez. "Realize all of these games have been very close match-ups. It could very easily be 2-1 in favor in the Rockets, could be 3-0 in favor of the Rockets."
The lesson they took away was something that they did better than Houston in Game’s 1 and 2: It’s the little things that make a huge difference.
"It really comes down to a few plays in each game and we watched a lot of film today and we’re going to come out with a lot more energy in the first quarter," Lopez said.
While it’s virtually impossible to narrow down which plays could have gone your way or been effected in enough of a manner to truly impact the outcome of the game; we can take a look at the information we have available and compare it to the relatively small sample sizes of the playoffs and possibly isolate some specific areas and/or players who could turn the outcome one way or another.
First things first, literally. Freedictionary.com gives arguably the best explanation for this idiom; "Do things in the proper order; do not skip things that you should do first." That is for the Blazers, they need to come out strong in the first quarter. Don't skip those first couple of minutes and let Houston build up any momentum and/or confidence. Houston has come out of the gates blazing with the exception of Game 1- 20, 31, and 34 points in the first 3 games. Meanwhile, Portland has only managed 27, 23, and 24 points. Houston is shooting an astonishing 49.3% in the first frame, compared to a paltry 42.9% for Portland. Houston maintains a definitive edge in almost every category for the first stanza; shots taken, made, 3pt FGs and percentage, rebounding and free throw percentage. Portland is keeping things relatively tight by hitting the offensive boards, nearly 5 to 4 total in favor of Portland and taking decent care of the ball, roughly 2.7 TOs to just over 4 for Houston. If the Blazers managed to clean up a bit from the floor- shooting better at the rim, from distance, and/or at the line they could neutralize or even take control at the end of the opening quarter.
Clean the glass. Portland made a living all season long beating times handily on the offensive glass. Through 3 games it has looked like the Houston Rockets not only wrote the book on offensive rebounding, they’ve patented it, trademarked it, and packaged it up into the next big thing- except they aren’t willing to share with Portland. Call it the battle of iOS and AndroidOS circa 2010- with Portland playing the part of the up and comer AndriodOS, thinking they’ve got a hold on things and then bam Houston shows up with that shiny iPhone and shows you how things are really done. According to player tracking data available at NBA.com Dwight Howard is averaging more than 2 rebounds per game over what he averaged in the regular season, while also increasing his contested rebound percentage from 37% to nearly 50%- at 48.8%! Meanwhile Houston’s perimeter quartet of Pat Beverly, James Harden, Chandler Parsons, and Jeremy Lin have upped their rebounds from 16.3 per game to 21.4 per game in the first 3 games. Only Lillard, Wright, and Aldridge have added to their totals from the regular season for Portland. With Lopez and Aldridge both giving up big chunks on Percentage of rebounds per chance (Measures the number of rebounds a player rebounds compared to the number of chances). While some of these may be getting picked up by wing players for Portland, it is much more likely that the duo of Aldridge and Lopez need to clean up the defensive boards better- while the Blazers perimeter players make a concerted effort to box out crashing Houston players. Rebounding seems to be the only category where either team can claim a real foothold on, and in Rockets case it has led to Houston averaging almost 10 shots more per game. In a 7 game series that is almost impossible to overcome unless…
Keep going inside. Portland has found a well. This well has many names; Damian Lillard, LaMarcus Aldridge, even Nicolas Batum, and of course who could forget- the free throw line. Portland has found that going to the rim rewards them with a bounty they haven’t really tasted this season. As the series has progressed, they have discovered they enjoy this easy flowing drink- as Houston has been more than willing to allow Portland to drink from that well as often as they'd like and as much as they can handle. Damian Lillard and Nic Batum are averaging 57% and 78%, respectively, on drives while doubling their combined season average of roughly 7 points per game to over 14 per game on drives. The combined effort of Lillard, Aldridge, and the rest of the Blazer rotation have made getting to the hoop and drawing fouls a clear priority as they currently lead the NBA playoffs in free throws made and attempted per game. Coach Terry Stotts has made getting into the paint a clear directive for the Blazers as they’re currently scoring at a rate not seen in Portland for quite some time. This style of attack has kept Houston off balance in more ways than one; this is Portland after all- the same team that scored in the paint the least during the regular season. One would think if they could do it during the playoffs it should have been much easier than the playoffs… you can tip your cap to the Jedi mind tricks of Terry Stotts here, but I’m also inclined to reference the terrible perimeter defense (Ben summed this up perfectly) -
Damian Lillard driving by James Harden so easily he should toss newspapers out of his window to up the difficulty level— Ben Golliver (@BenGolliver) April 26, 2014
It also puts the pressure on Houston’s bigs to defend, which can and has led to foul trouble for anyone over the height of 6’6" in this series, and it forces Houston’s defense to scramble. Now, Portland has not made that scrambling defense pay consistently from the 3 point line. While shooting a respectable 35% for the series, anyone not named Damian Lillard has yet to consistently hit from deep. Wes Matthews’ 3 point percentage could be confused with an April temperature reading in Fargo, coming in a shade under 18%- if he was able to channel his inner Mike Dunleavy, Portland could really force Houston to pick their poison- inside or outside.
While these adjustments are far from all inclusive, Portland has proved all season long that they are capable of internal growth and improvement. If the Blazers can maintain in other areas, scoring inside, limiting turnovers, getting to and converting at the free throw line, whilst increasing their rebounding or getting off to a hotter start, then Portland could be on its first series win in over a decade. There’s still a lot left to be seen in this series- Portland has plenty of areas to improve in, yet we haven't touched on anything that Houston could do to run away with this series. We still have yet to see a breakout game from this series’ top star in James Harden, and Houston has hardly set the world on fire with their 3 point shooting. Here’s hoping that the folks that are happy right now, the fans and the Portland Trail Blazers are still the only ones happy at the end of this series.