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Game 21 Preview: Rockets vs. Blazers

Time:  7:00 p.m. Pacific  TV:  Comcast

Since Portland traded home wins with Houston in the first week of the season the Rockets have been on a zig-zag journey.  They've alternated wins and losses with 1 two-game losing streak and 2 three-game winning streaks thrown in, including the three-gamer they're currently on.  They've been a bit of a chameleon team, changing their attack and tempo to match their opponent.  In general they've been fairly successful, boasting not only an 11-8 record but wins against the L*kers and Jazz to go with their victory against the Blazers.  That said, they have lost 7 to decent-or-better opponents, the low point coming in a 130-99 drubbing at the hands of the Mavericks the day before Thanksgiving.  Houston will almost always stay with you but they have a hard time dominating.  They have enough to put away lesser teams but the better teams in the league find ways to win against them when allowed to hang around.

As you knew they'd have to coming into the season, the Rockets have built their record on sharing the wealth.  Four different players have lead the team in scoring four or more times during the young season.  Trevor Ariza started the season strong offensively but lately Aaron Brooks, Carl Landry, and Luis Scola have been topping the charts.  All have scored 20+ on multiple occasions.  All but Ariza are shooting the ball well...Trevor perhaps relying too much on the three-point shot to match the others.  All of them draw fouls.  It's a hydra approach instead of the usual NBA dragon, but it works.  They do, however, rely on easy shots, both fastbreak and paint.  When they get them they win.  Deny them good looks and they lose.

If Houston's offense has been somewhat better than advertised their defense may be somewhat worse.  This is not to impugn them.  They're not bad.  But they're not among the league's defensive elite.  They tend to allow the same fastbreak and paint points that they generate.  They have some great individual defenders but they need to play at a quick enough tempo in generating their offense that they don't always show those defenders to best advantage.  If you allow them to set they will shut you down.  But if you can keep them moving and guessing they'll allow you as much opportunity as most teams.  They have no shot blockers to speak of so if you get into the paint with momentum they'll have a hard time stopping you.

The Rockets are excellent offensive rebounders but middling defensive rebounders.  Their bench features solid play from point guard Kyle Lowry, forward-center Carl Landry, and young Chase Budinger who flourishes against teams that don't defend well.

The Blazers don't have all the options available to them they had when they beat this team on opening night.  That lessens the margin for error.  Portland is going to have to make the most out of every possession.  The two teams have similar records and are generally competent but Houston tends to win more along the effort/hustle line while the Blazers tend to win along the talent/mismatch line.  With the shallower talent pool the Blazers will have to make up the difference somewhere.

Pivotal Points of the Game

1.  Know who you're defending!  The Rockets don't feature an all-around superstar who can burn you twenty different ways.  Battier's going to shoot.  Ariza wants to run.  Brooks likes to drive past you.  The forwards like the short/mid-range jumper and have a couple post moves.  Just give decent defensive effort against their strengths.  Don't worry about doubling Battier on the dribble or Landry in the post.  You know what they're going to do.  Get in their way.

2.  The one exception to this rule, for us anyway, has been Aaron Brooks.  He's been a Rubik's Cube for our defense.  We don't have anyone quick enough to stay with him.  If you back off him, he shoots.  If you double him, he passes.  The best solution when this happens is to keep the pressure on him on the other end.  He's 6 feet tall.  Post him.  Shoot over him.  Do whatever you have to in order to make him pay for being out there defending you.

3.  Attack the lane.

4.  Get back in transition.

5.  Keep them off of the offensive glass.

All of this can be summed up thusly:  Play Hard, Play Smart.  If you can manage that (and assuming LaMarcus is back) you should be able to win this game.  If you do not play hard and smart Houston will be more than happy to show you how to do it.  Then you will lose.

Final Thoughts and Links

This may be the most important game of the year for the Blazers momentum-wise.  As we talked about on the podcast this week there are winnable games on the upcoming road trip but no guarantees.  New York can play fast and loose enough to get us into trouble.  Indiana presents some matchup problems that could cause enough trouble to throw the game in doubt.  Cleveland is Cleveland and Milwaukee's not a gimme anymore.  You'd expect to win at least a couple of those games but this game is like insurance against a tough trip.  Or if you think the outlook is brighter, this game could turn a good stretch into a great one.  Losing this game forces the Blazers to turn it around on the road.  That's possible.  They've done it before.  But it's a lot to ask.  The end of December is even rougher than the beginning.  I doubt carrying a 4-7 streak into that Orlando-Miami-Dallas-San Antonio road trip is on the Blazers' list of fun holiday activities.

Even though we need this game badly, don't panic if we don't get it.  For the past two years this team has gone through mostly-unexpected losing jags and still ended up plenty to the good side.  They deserve a chance to turn it around again if that happens.  Nothing that happens in December completely makes or breaks a season.  Keep a longer-term least until we get into 2010 proper.

Check out what Rockets fans are saying over at at TheDreamShake.

Enter tonight's Jersey Contest form here.

--Dave (