Ever since I started my blogging career there have been 3-4 posts I burn passionately to write. This is a milestone, as it's one of them. The Blazers made the playoffs 21 years in a row and a few years before that as well but I wasn't writing publicly during any of those. That makes this my very first, "How we're going to beat the opponent in a playoff series" post.
If you missed Part 1 of this playoff preview, wherein we reviewed the Houston Rockets, you can find it here. Many of the assertions there will find their counterparts here, so familiarity would help.
There's over 9 pages of info and analysis here. To avoid sending everything else at the site into the next county you can click through the jump to read.
OK. Deep breath. Focus. Here we go.
If this were MMA, everyone would be expecting a "ground and pound" matchup. Both teams run measured, tactical offenses. The Rockets have more dominant individual matchups and more experienced, targeted complementary players but the Blazers have more all-around ability top-to-bottom and more overall offensive success. The Rockets run a suffocating defense. The Blazers try to emulate this but have only gotten as far as shutting down the middle most nights, forcing the opponent to play (and shoot) from the edges. Each team plays at a slow pace. This is a battle of the second most efficient offense in the league against the fourth most efficient defense. This is the best offensive rebounding team in the league going against one of the best defensive rebounding teams. This is a battle of attrition and submission more than talent gap. The team most able to impose their will is the team that will finish ahead.
The problem for the Blazers is the Rockets have more experience, more defense, and more potential for physically punishing play. If this series is only going to be ground and pound it looks good for Houston. Portland cannot and should not abandon the high percentage offense, interior bulwark defense, and strong rebounding style that got them this far. But the Blazers need to throw in some tempo-changing wrinkles of the variety we saw late in the regular season. They cannot simply walk the ball up, try to match their offense against a set Houston defense, allow Houston to do the same at the other end, and expect to sustain an advantage. Here's the mantra from the Blazers' end of things for this series:
"The slower we go, the faster we lose."
The number one priority of the Blazers will be to sustain an attack on both ends that takes advantage of their mobility and forces Houston to move and think faster than they'd like.
Tempo starts with securing possession of the ball which usually entails rebounding. This may be the #1 statistic of the entire series. The Blazers must rebound the ball better than the Rockets to have a chance. They cannot rely on Joel Przybilla and Greg Oden alone either. Both will be occupied trying to handle Yao Ming. Both will be needed to help against anybody getting loose in the interior because of the extra help we'll give guarding Yao Ming. Most importantly of all, both of them may be on the bench at the same time if the Blazers decide to fight fire with water and go with an ultra-mobile lineup. The entire team must be committed to rebounding, especially on the defensive end. Houston power forwards snagging misses and putting them right back in will kill any chance the Blazers have of pushing the opponent.
If you read the Rockets-centric preview you'll know that cheap points are difficult to come by in a Houston game. Three pointers and free throws are as rare as rubies. Fast break points are somewhat more common. The key to all three is speed. You get fouled when you get past people. You get open threes when the ball moves. You get fast breaks by outrunning your opponent.
The Blazers have to avoid the temptation to pass the ball to their stars and watch them work. The Rockets will take isolation offense all day long. It leads to no breaks, few fouls, and zero uncontested threes. Instead Portland needs to secure the ball and run it up, looking in particular for big men ahead of the pack. If no running opportunity manifests there's no need for a quick shot. Move the rock around. Reversing the ball (swinging it to the opposite side of the floor) will be one key to Portland's offensive success. Penetrating with the dribble and pass will be another. Even if the Blazers don't score off of that penetration they can find an open man on the wing. Spending 18 seconds setting up the right shot is not a bad thing, as it forces the defense to continually adjust and wears out some of the big men. Remember that tempo doesn't necessarily mean quick shots. It means keeping the ball and everyone's feet moving quickly.
One of the best things the Blazers can do is involve Yao Ming in a lot of high pick and rolls. You force him away from the basket that way, opening up lanes for drivers and more opportunities for offensive rebounds. More to the point you tire him out quicker. You may not see much pick and roll success against him in the first two quarters but as the game wanes, see if his feet are moving as quickly. His defensive night should be a constant litany of show and recover, show and recover. Slowing him down limits his rebounds, his defensive rotations, his hustle down the court, makes his shot fall short, and puts him in peril of foul trouble. That is Portland's main goal.
It's important for each of the Blazers to show offensive confidence. If you have a good shot you have to take it without hesitation. Some of those shots will be outside and that's fine. In general you define a good outside shot as one that has come off of a pass, ideally from penetration. Bad outside shots come with no passes first. Every Blazer on the perimeter must make the Rockets pay for leaving him open. That's the only way the court will be spread.
This is doubly true when you consider the defensive players Brandon Roy has to play against. Roy is the heart of everything for us. He's going to be a main target for the opponent. If nobody else is scoring he won't either...not in this series. The Blazers' usual M.O. of Brandon's offense creating more space for everybody else is going to be exactly reversed against Houston. Other people will need to penetrate and hit shots in order to take attention away from Brandon. Have you ever played "Capture the Flag" and had one of your fastest players have to sit in jail while you sent waves of men to free him so he could lead your attack? That's what this series is like for Roy. He's going to start the game locked up. Every shot hit by a teammate is one step closer to getting him free.
Obviously Portland still needs Roy to score 20+. But this time it's not going to happen with him going nose-to-nose with Artest, Battier, and help all night long like he goes nose to nose with, say, J.R. Smith and Carmelo Anthony. It's going to happen when the Rockets have to move around so much they can't recover and give help in time. It still won't be easy for Brandon but he can penetrate, hit the fall-away, and maybe even draw some fouls on those premier defenders.
If it seems we're talking a bunch about offense here, that's correct. Defense may win championships but in this series, for Portland anyway, defense is not going to win them games on its own. They must pursue their main advantages and most of those are on the offensive end. The Rockets are going to love a contest in the 80's or 90's. Portland could still win that kind of game but they're not going to stretch Houston that way or make them uncomfortable. The Blazers need games over 100. They could still lose those but on average they're going to fare better in that range than Houston will. If the Blazers and Rockets score in the 80's or 90's something may or may not be wrong with Portland. If the Blazers score in the 100's something's definitely wrong with Houston.
To this end the Blazers are going to have consider playing more mobile, more offensive-oriented lineups. The first wrinkle you're likely to see is LaMarcus Aldridge playing center against Yao Ming along with an offensive power forward like Travis Outlaw or Channing Frye. LaMarcus can't contain Yao in the post without a ton of help but no Blazer will be able to do that anyway. LaMarcus can front Yao as well as anybody as long as the help comes from behind if and when Yao gets the ball. If Yao prefers to shoot the mid-range jumper or hook there's not much defensive difference between LaMarcus and the more traditional centers anyway. However LaMarcus can get down the court twice as quickly as Yao. LaMarcus must be covered if he sets screens out high. LaMarcus can pull Yao outside one-on-one. LaMarcus can move Yao around the court even if he doesn't touch the ball. Travis Outlaw presents a similar matchup problem at power forward. The idea is that Houston expects their advantages to be matched by corresponding advantages for Portland. Oden/Pryzbilla-Yao. Artest/Roy. The Blazers may well concede Houston's size and post advantage and dare them to cover more speed and range on the other end. Post play yields higher percentage shots but running and moving yield more extra points plus they force decisions upon the opponent and wear them out as well. How will the Rockets deal with Aldridge-Yao, Outlaw-Scola, or Fernandez-Battier?
Turning to the defensive end, the size and power of Yao Ming and Ron Artest scare you if you're Portland. It's not so much even the points those two will pour in. They're both good but neither threatens at a Kobe-LeBron level. It's the resources you have to commit to prevent being backed down and overwhelmed by them that hurt. Once you have to give help the Rockets carve you apart with free shots from the arc.
As long as the Blazers keep a true center in the game I think you single-cover Yao in all but the most obvious cases and let the chips fall where they may. (The most obvious cases would be him turning into the lane off the dribble when a guard was close enough to swipe at the ball...that kind of thing.) You keep your body in front of the big guy, make him work at least a little for his points, and hope he tires out making those offensive moves. He'll score but he won't carry the offense on his own. Force him to shoulder more of the burden than he or his teammates are comfortable with, rebound his misses, and call it good. Nobody else gets free looks. Nobody else gets comfortable. Maybe you see a breakdown when they're called upon to hit shots later on. Plus between Oden and Przybilla you have 12 fouls to use up, and that's before you even get to your very good Plan B. The same cannot be said--either of the foul freedom or the Plan B--at other positions. You lose Roy, Aldridge, or Steve Blake and your game is going to be affected.
When you're running Plan B, which is the smaller defender, you front Yao, try to deny the ball, and then send quick help to make sure he can't dribble. I don't think you wait for him to put the ball on the floor to help because then his size and momentum will make him all but unstoppable for comparatively slight players. That's an "and one" waiting to happen. You swarm him, try and force him into a quick shot, or make him give the ball up again and hope you have the speed to recover out to whoever he gets it to. You're not going to do this long enough that it becomes routine for him. You just want to disrupt the flow of the offense and make the Rockets uncomfortable from the moment they consider trying to pass to him.
The more troubling matchup on the face of it is Ron Artest. He's good and in his own way as physically dominant as Yao when he's facing a defender in isolation. Every Portland defender will be either smaller or weaker than he. What's more you haven't got the fouls to spend at that position that you do against Yao.
The first rule of defending Artest is that you don't do it with anybody you care about or need elsewhere. That means no Roy, even though Artest is, in name anyway, the shooting guard with McGrady injured. We'll probably see Nicolas Batum on Ron-Ron while Roy switches over to Battier. The reasoning is simple: even if the defender does a credible job and stays out of foul trouble, the energy they'll expend and the physical pounding they'll take will make the battle for attrition go Houston's way when the Blazers are counting on it going theirs instead.
The second rule of defending Artest is knowing that you're going to concede some points but understanding that if they're the right kind of points they probably won't cost you the game. The kind of points to avoid are getting bum rushed on the fast break against a defender, points coming from deep post moves, open threes off the pass, and conventional three-point opportunities. You want him to score after having dribbled the ball for ten seconds, making a couple moves to get free. If you can get him to shoot a jumper after all of that, so much the better. But even a back-to-the-basket move is fine if it takes time and keeps the ball away from everybody else. In fact it might not be the worst idea if Artest gets the idea that he can win the game all by himself. He's a serious offensive threat but he still only averaged 40% this year compared to Yao's 55%.
This goes doubly true for the Rockets' third offensive powerhouse (albeit intermittently) Aaron Brooks. He can lay a hurting on you but he's only going to do it every sixth game. He's also a 40% shooter. Most importantly of all, when he's in score-mode other players aren't touching the ball. The Blazers could get burned, but it's a risk they should take. Encourage Brooks to dominate the ball, then get ready to rebound like heck.
If Brooks does make a concerted effort to play the traditional point guard role we need to make him think. Switch up the defenses. Overplay and then sag off. Pressure a little then play it straight. Distribution isn't the strong part of his game so watch for turnover opportunities.
With everyone else on the Houston roster the idea is consistent: make sure they score on their own rather than in the flow of the offense. The "off the pass good, off the dribble bad" mantra we chanted for the Blazers' offense holds true for nearly every complementary player on the Rockets. Luis Scola getting an offensive rebound and stick-back: deadly. Luis Scola taking two dribbles and firing a jumper: don't even need an aspirin. Shane Battier receiving a pass in the corner for an open three: get ready to cry to your mama. Shane Battier working one-on-one to create a shot: yeah, mama!
One wrinkle we haven't mentioned yet is the employment of a zone. At first glance it may seem suicidal against a battalion of three-point shooters such as the Rockets field. But remember their good jumpers come off of defensive breakdowns on your part caused by their dominant players leading to an easy pass and score. The zone helps keep the ball from getting to those dominant players in the places they score best. It ensures bodies will be there when they do receive it. It also shuts down some of the best outside shooting angles, encouraging people to shoot deep off the dribble from spots they're less comfortable, such as the angle three. Employed too steadily, too long the zone loses effectiveness. But as a switch-up for a few minutes or on a play-by-play basis I suspect the Blazers will get some mileage out of it.
The Blazers need to understand that the Rockets need to go to particular players in particular situations to be successful offensively. Once the ball has reached its destination the shot is going up or the next pass is similarly predictable. Without McGrady invention is neither Houston's strong suit nor their preference. We're going to see the pre-series preparation play large here. You can usually tell what they're about to do. Use your noodle and overplay those percentage possibilities.
The final admonition on this end of the court is to shepherd your offense so that you don't put yourself in compromising positions defensively. The Rockets don't force turnovers. Don't give them free ones. The Rockets don't run. Never give them the chance anyway. The Rockets are only an average offensive rebounding team. Don't make it easy on them. Houston's offense is resting on about 3.5 legs right now. If you can take out half of a leg or more it becomes unsteady. But if you give them 10 free points right back you've undone all of your work. If you give them those free points and can't manage to take out that leg in the first place you're done. Get back, hit the boards, make smart plays offensively, avoid the temptation of quick, long shots outside of the offense.
I don't do the traditional "matchup" list because I find it unhelpful. Shooting Guard A has the advantage over Shooting Guard B? In what ways? In which situations? And most importantly, how strongly? One dominant matchup can trump four marginal ones even though it looks like a 4-1 advantage on paper. Teams that win are the teams that create situations in which their advantages tell more than the opponents' advantages, whatever those advantages may be. Whether Brandon Roy will be BRANDON ROY against those wing defenders Houston has is an open question in this series, for instance, no matter what the stats say.
More importantly, I think that contemplating (and playing) this series as strictly a set of matchups plays right into Houston's hands. That's their game. Portland's game is played in the spaces between players as much as with the players themselves. Again, to go straight up head-to-head against your counterpart is to lose to Houston.
Therefore instead of listing matchups I'm going to list Portland's major players and what we'll need from them in this series, especially if that stretches beyond what we normally see.
Portland needs Brandon's points, to be sure. The constant threat of Brandon scoring is one of the things that will keep the Houston defense honest. However Brandon may have to adjust the way in which he scores and pick his spots to dominate carefully. In particular I believe we're going to need a lot more of the point-guard Brandon in the early quarters of games in this series. He needs to penetrate but then he needs to look at the dish when the defense closes. He usually needs but a sliver of daylight to score but even that sliver may be missing when you're talking Yao, Scola, Artest, and Battier collapsing on you. Early aggressiveness is fine. Drawing fouls is even better. But even more important is that Brandon be the key in getting those defenders to move. Once they do move he needs to trust his teammates to score. Then in the fourth, when the defense has moved all night long and isn't sharp anymore, that's your 15-point quarter.
Early quarters, Brandon scores mostly from the line. Late quarters, Brandon destroys them.
Defensively Roy should have an easier time against Battier than Artest. This will allow him to conserve his strength. However he needs to be one of the team rebounders on the defensive end, especially in a smaller lineup.
If this series is to be won it may be LaMarcus that does it. His ability to run the court could be a major advantage. His mid-range game as well. He'll need to be a multi-purpose defender, handling Yao and even Artest from time to time as well as his usual power forward assignments. He also has to know that Houston has 18 fouls to spend against him, the counterpoint to Portland's fouls to spend against Yao. They're going to come at LaMarcus hard. He has to be tough, aggressive, and keep his mind in the game. Hitting his free throws wouldn't hurt either. No matter who he's defending the endpoint of that defense should leave him inside so he needs to be a rebounder as well. There may be players with taller orders and more impossible tasks in this series but there's probably none we'll rely on as much. LaMarcus has to be ready to play in every aspect of the game.
Joel's task will not be to stop Yao. Nobody can do that except Yao. Rather Joel will do to Yao what the Houston power forwards are going to try and do to LaMarcus: stay in front of him, make his shots difficult, push him, bump him, make the game very physical against him so as to wear him down and get his mind off of the task at hand. He will be the disrupter as much as the defender. He will hopefully allow the Blazers to spend some quality minutes single-covering Yao instead of having to scramble continuously to compensate for him. Beyond that Joel just needs to do the usual: rebound hard, set good screens, and be the anchor.
As I've said a couple times, this is a tough draw for Nic. He's a good defender with nobody wholly appropriate to defend. There's no Kobe here. Instead you have Ron Artest who is huge and will immediately want to post up Nic. That's not the strength of Batum's defense. You have Battier who is not a one-on-one offensive player and who will all but waste Nic's ability by making him stand on the weak side waiting for a pass for a three...an eventuality which has to be guarded against, meaning Nic can't leave. At point guard Aaron Brooks is too small and speedy for Nic to take on full-time. Batum will play. He might make some hay in the passing lanes if he's able to anticipate. He might be one of the guys called to help inside from the wing. But he's going to have to show us something new in order to make the kind of impact we're used to. He's also going to have to be a credible offensive threat or he just can't stay out there.
Blake just needs to do what he does best: be a conduit for the offense and hit the three when it's presented. The latter contribution may be his most crucial. Every long ball he hits frees up Brandon a little more.
Here HEAR me now and believe me later: Travis Outlaw must rebound in this series for Portland to have a chance. His glass-work will be THE key to the Blazers being able to go with a smaller lineup. He'll also be one of the guys who can give even the good Houston defenders trouble and he might be the only guy on the roster (save perhaps LaMarcus) with a completely green light to go one-on-one in any situation. Remember those guys sent to free Brandon from jail with their shot-making? Travis is Option 1A. This series will be a challenge for Travis, but because we need offense and "escapability" it's a challenge he can meet.
If Travis is Option 1A, Rudy is a close 1B. It would be impossible to overstate how much we need him to hit threes when he gets daylight. This series is about extra points, room on the court, and motion. Rudy brings all three. His passing could be of great value. Defensively he'll probably have to watch Battier even at the cost of putting Roy on Artest or Brooks sometimes.
As long as Travis rebounds hard we might be able to get away without him scoring. Not so Rudy. He's that important.
Oden's job description will be similar to Przybilla's with some extra offensive rebounding thrown in. I'd love to see Greg set picks with Yao trailing and then dive for the hoop. I'd love to see Greg put a spin move on Yao without the ball just once and receive the pass for the alley-oop. Most importantly, though, Greg just needs to be able to put a body on Yao without drawing silly, unintentional fouls, particularly if Joel is in foul trouble and we need 28 minutes from somebody. Greg doesn't need to have a great outing every night but my gut tells me we're going to need one or two productive games from him to have a chance.
We've been saying for months now that as the playoffs approach Sergio is going to be marginalized in favor of Steve Blake's steady play. But Sergio has made increasingly nice contributions in the last few months and this series may actually be made for him. We need offense, penetration, and passing. The Rockets' Achilles Heel defensively is probably point guard. It's not likely Sergio will see big minutes but some of his magic in those interim stretches could provide the extra points we need.
Rebound hard and hit the open shot to spread the floor. If you get stuck on Yao, front him. Then make him come out to guard you on the other end.
Possible Blazer Advantages
We've talked a lot about Houston's advantages, on the court and otherwise. We should mention a few more things that could tip Portland's way.
The obvious one is the strongest. The Blazers have been great at home. They'll need to be again in this series.
2. Bench Play
The Rockets aren't deep right now. They're adequate. Portland has the bodies and talent to keep the energy high for 48 minutes and to outperform Houston's bench. They'll need to. Fatigue and foul trouble are Portland's friends.
Never having been here before can work both ways. Obviously the Blazers lack knowledge and experience but they haven't experienced any first-round exits either. They may be just ignorant and enthusiastic enough to not consider the possibility.
Say what you want about the Blazers, they've played well this season and have experienced few aberrations. Any team depending heavily on Ron Artest probably can't guarantee the same. Portland is far more likely to crumple in discouragement and disillusionment than the Rockets are. Houston is far more likely to implode.
The Final Word
The key games in this series will be 1 and 2. We need to see how the Blazers are going to come out. At first they're likely to be too amped up. They need to settle in and play their game. Winning the first game in any series gives a team considerable advantage.
Win or lose, the Game 2 reaction will also be key. Portland can't rest on its laurels in victory. Portland can't give up in defeat. Game 1 will show the Blazers' reaction to the playoffs in general. Game 2 will show their reaction to the Rockets.
We should have a pretty good idea after the first two games how the series will go. It can't be won there, of course, but it could be lost there. It's a pretty good bet that trends you see early won't be radically reversed...on Houston's part because they only know how to play one way, on Portland's part because they don't know how to successfully change that quickly yet. You may see different outcomes as far as victory or defeat in a given game, but the tenor of the series should be set.
There's going to be a big difference between a couple of solid wins and a squeaked-by win plus a loss. There may also be a difference between a win followed by a discouraging loss and a loss followed by an inspiring win. How the proceedings transpire may tell us as much as the outcomes themselves.
It's unprecedented for a team this young that got good this quickly to have a position of this magnitude. Let's see how the Blazers react.
ALSO REMEMBER THIS... Despite all of the calls for gimmicks, running, strange lineups, and more play for unknowns over the years this team has had a unified, consistent philosophy every step of the way. That philosophy has been to play winning, percentage basketball. And why? Because that's what usually prevails in the playoffs. This team has been built from the ground up for the post-season. The approach, the style, and the execution are familiar to the entire team, as this is what they've been doing all along. You may not see the full fruition this year, but you'll see some dividends in this series.
Make sure to check out the fun (but please don't troll) over at TheDreamShake.
The pre-game thread will start mid-afternoon.