Portland Trail Blazers: The NBA Playoffs and a Date with the Houston Rockets

Andrew Richardson-USA TODAY Spor

The Blazersedge Mailbag returns with a look at the playoff chances for the Portland Trail Blazers and particular challenges in a Blazers-Houston Rockets matchup.

With the hectic schedule it's been too long since we've had a chance to dip into the Mailbag.  Let's remedy that!

Dave,

We made the playoffs! Now the burning question has to be what are our chances? Do you see the Blazers in the second round? I'm thinking you'll say no but I hope I'm surprised.

Gregory

You don't need me to tell you that getting to the second round will be a tough task, regardless of opponent.  You already know much of the story here.

The Blazers compiled 50 wins (as opposed to playing .500) based on three factors:

1.  They stayed healthier than other teams.

2.  They went on a huge, early-season run.  Momentum and talent factored in.  Being better prepared than opponents (conversely, having opponents less familiar with Portland's style) also played a role.

3.  The bulk of that run, and most of the reasons for optimism, come from a sterling record against below-.500 teams.  Facing above-.500 squads the Blazers are mediocre.

Health might be an issue in the first round depending on opponent.  But it's not November anymore, a playoff foe will be more than familiar with Portland's strengths and weaknesses.  No possible post-season matchup will pit the Blazers against a sub-.500 team.  2.5 of those 3 advantageous factors won't hold in the playoffs.

You also have to remember that the playoffs are traditionally about matchups and adjustments, far more so than the regular season.

Multiple agendas come into play during an 82-game campaign.  Continuity, pacing and rest, chemistry and touches keep everyone happy.  None of these are more important than winning but all of them affect how you go about winning.  Even if it's strong, you usually won't see teams go to a matchup advantage 40 times during a game.  They'll try to exploit the advantage while keeping the star rested, his teammates engaged, and the overall game plan intact.

Neither rest nor chemistry nor game planning matter when the next loss could end your year.  Wins count.  That's it.  Exploiting a matchup until it runs dry IS the post-season game plan.  Nobody cares if that means 30 shots for the Big Cheese and 2 for the 5th starter as long as the team wins.  Teams that skimmed over Portland's weaknesses during 3-4 regular season games will suddenly be interested in driving a caravan through them in a playoff series.

Adjusting and counter-attacking provide the corrective for this.  Both teams come out and do their thing in Game 1.  By Game 2 the loser is probably making adjustments.  Each game thereafter brings more.  You watch what your opponent does then move to counter.

How adjustable are the Blazers, though?  Can you bring Robin Lopez out of the lane?   Can Wesley Matthews and Nicolas Batum become isolation scorers off the drive?  How much variance lies in the offense of LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard even?  (They're both multi-talented, but they tend to do well when following certain patterns and crumble when taken out of them.)  Can the Blazers rely on bench players to provide different looks?

Unless you're a dominant force that nobody else can cope with, playoff series are won and lost based on wrinkles.  The Blazers are as flat as a soldier's sheet.  They don't win with wrinkles.  They win by pursuing their semi-predictable style, getting more out of their players than the other team gets out of theirs.  Dip into the rotation even one player farther than they want to, take away even 1-2 things they do well, and the Blazers can't make it up.

The Blazers aren't doomed.  I expect a hard-fought series.  Anything can happen on a given night.  That's why they play the games.  But peel back all those hopeful cliches and you're left with the conclusion that the Blazers probably won't emerge from the first round.  And even if they do, that doesn't spell a long playoff run...more of a pleasant surprise.  The Blazers just aren't built for the playoffs yet and it's likely to show.

Dave,

It looks like the Blazers will face the Houston 'Refkets' in the playoffs.  How concerned are you about fair officiating and free throws in that match up?

Jorge

First off, you know that's an awful nickname, right?  It trades on the first letter "R" being the same in "Rockets" and "Refkets".  But that's not how ears align words.  Vowel sounds are more important.  "Houston Floppers" or, if you insist, "Houston Flopkets" would sound more natural.   Plus the transition from aspirated "f" to hard "k" doesn't have many parallels in English.  (Sorry Kafka fans!)  "Refkets" is a total non-starter.

The Rockets will almost certainly draw more fouls and free throw attempts than the Blazers will in any prospective series.  They've been shooting foul shots all year long, ranking first in the NBA with 31.2 attempts per game.  Portland ranks 14th at 23.4.  There's no comparison.

Part of this comes from star power.  Dwight Howard and James Harden are handfuls.  Few defenders can contain them.  Between them they account for 18 of Houston's 31 attempts.  No other Rocket attempts more than 4 free throws per game.  They know who's going to produce and they get them the ball.

Houston's game plan factors in as well.  They run a video game offense.  They either want the three or an attempt in the lane.  They're 1st in the league in three-pointers attempted, 2nd in points in the paint scored.  One way or another--via the triple or an and-one--they want a third point appended to each shot.  Failing that, they want a couple of free throws as a consolation prize.  That free throw attempt rate is no accident, nor is it due to flopping alone.

The good news for the Blazers is that free throw attempts don't count on the scoreboard.  Free throw makes do.  Houston still has an advantage in that category but it's only 3 points, not the mammoth 8 in the attempt department.  Here the standings are inverted.  The Blazers lead the league in free throw percentage while Houston ranks 29th.  The Blazers are pretty good at keeping the opponent off the line as well.  Those factors may make Portland uniquely qualified to dampen the effect of the disparity.

Personally I'd worry more about a Portland center being able to handle Howard, what happens if Harden goes crazy, and relative bench strength before I'd sweat the free throw issue in this matchup.  The Blazers have enough to worry about without creating three extra opponents in grey.

You can hear more thoughts on the Portland-Houston matchup on the Phil Naessens Show, during which I did a 15-minute guest spot this week.  Phil kept trying to talk me into the Blazers winning the first round.  Let's hope he's right!

Keep those Mailbag questions coming to the address below with "Mailbag" in the subject line!

--Dave (blazersub@gmail.com)

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