Sometimes the most basic truisms are also the most apt, and one of the basic truisms about the playoffs is that seven-game series are all about adjustments. We're going to see plenty of them tonight.
From the Blazers' perspective the basic gameplan remains largely the same: rebound, deny Yao, mix and match defenses, play the offensive aggressively and with confidence, play up-tempo so as to not let the defense set, move (reverse) the ball around so as to make the Rockets (particularly their interior guys) chase when defending. For the most part that's how they won Tuesday night. The approach doesn't change just because the venue did.
However within that broader approach there will be new emphases. The Blazers are going to have to react to the adjustments the Rockets will have made since Game 2.
Offense is critical for Portland in this series. Houston will have noticed Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge combining for 46 shots on Tuesday night while the rest of the team combined for 28. They'll also factor in 20 free throw attempts for the two stars and 16 for everyone else. They're going to pick their poison when deciding who to defend. You're not going to see as much single coverage as you have the first two games. You're going to see Roy and Aldridge getting mobbed like they were the Beatles and the Rockets defenders were pimply-faced girls. (If you're under 20, replace "Beatles" with "Jonas Brothers" and you'll get the picture.)
There's a simple counter to this strategy. It carries many names. Some call it "Steve Blake", others "Rudy Fernandez". Some dub it "Travis Outlaw" while a few name it "Greg Oden". (Nicolas Batum? It's a long-shot, but maybe.) Each approach has merit. The idea is that the supporting cast has got to step up offensively this evening. Blake and Rudy have to make their threes along with a few incisive passes. Travis has got to be able to score one-on-one. He's also got to show more of that active defense he played the other night. Greg needs to be available for quick catches and dunks plus mop-up duty. Drain a few long balls or get a couple dunks and the defense has to revert. Start bricking or even hesitating and the jaws of the trap will close. If the Blazers turtle up and only send Brandon peeking out of the offensive shell tonight they're going to get squashed.
On the defensive end Portland has seen two vastly different games. Houston keyed the offense on Yao in the first game. He had an amazing night and they never looked back. They barely looked Yao's direction in the second game. Frankly their offense screamed, "Heat check! We suspect we can beat you playing any way we please." They couldn't. A couple players had amazing offensive nights but they still lost. The lesson is going to be pretty easy to hammer home to them given the disparity in results: When Yao touches the ball first everybody prospers. When he doesn't it doesn't matter if everybody else prospers.
The Blazers have not yet had success in a game where Yao got a lot of shots. They're going to have to figure out how to do that because Houston playing any other way for the rest of this series would go down as a colossal blunder, especially should they happen to lose. Fronting him is the basic strategy, probably coupled with bringing quick help when he puts the ball on the floor. It's not so critical that you limit Yao's actual scoring. You want to make him work hard to even catch the ball, take shots deeper out on the court, and expend a lot of energy whatever he decides to do.
With Dikembe Mutumbo out the Rockets are particularly vulnerable at center. They've got a host of good big men but outside of Yao nobody they have should be able to handle Greg Oden. Oden may spend some time on Yao but his key use will probably be as the huge guy off the bench. Against Houston power forwards he'll have a chance to post up, to roll and dunk, and most importantly of all to grab offensive rebounds--another aspect of the Blazer offense which has been lacking and needs revival in order for Portland to prosper. Wearing down Yao is the key.
To that end the Blazers will need to continue involving Yao in screen situations. Draw the big guy outside. If you do rebound and get the chance to run, do so. Make sure Yao never gets to stand still on the court defensively. Pretty soon his offense will become more stationary. After that he'll tire anyway. This is when Portland has to make good.
As we discussed in yesterday's post about officiating, it's is critical that the Blazers get deep penetration and finish strong. The Blazers do need to be confident taking the open shot but if every shot is a jumper they're going to lose out on valuable extra points and even more valuable foul pressure on the Rockets. The Blazers have been in the penalty in a bunch of quarters in this series while Houston had fouls to burn. That can't happen on the road. Constant foul shooting is one of the few things that could make Artest and Brooks as effective as Yao in affecting a game, as they'll drive mercilessly and pick up the freebies. Portland needs to be ready if the officiating favors the home team at first. No matter what they must force the refs to make calls their way. That means driving stubbornly.
- Look for Outlaw, Oden, Fernandez, and Blake to get more shots and make more of a difference.
- Do everything you can to run Yao around on defense and make him battle for position and the ball on offense. Points from him won't kill you. Easy points from him followed by equally easy points for everybody else as your defense compensates will.
- Use the Oden matchup to control the boards when Yao sits.
- Drive aggressively on offense. Get the Rockets in foul trouble.
Being on the road is a particular challenge for this team but after the hard-fought battles of the last two games my guess is the Blazers won't need crowd energy to get motivated. One or two shoves or holds ought to get their ire up enough to compensate for the general lack of support in the arena. If that causes them to play nastier, so be it.
Tonight is more or less a freebie for Portland as far as the series. They would rock the momentum of the series by winning it, but few expect them to. If they do lose there's still Game 4 to steal a win back on the road. The problem is that Portland has not dealt with new experiences well this season and they've played much better with their backs against the wall than they have when they had a chance to be more proactive and seize greatness on their own terms. If they want to win this series they're going to have to alter that trend. The competition is too good and the precipice too narrow and steep to bank on last-ditch reprieves. You can't count on winning any given game of this series, let alone one on the road. If you put yourself in a spot where you have to win three straight it doesn't matter how much grit and moxie you show...odds are one of those games will bite you. Even forcing yourself to have to win the next game is dicey. The Blazers could stay alive and certainly eventually take the series if they won Game 4. They can go into the driver's seat again if they win Game 3. There's a difference.
The proper approach to this game is to be loose and relaxed enough that you play your game without fear (you have some cushion now and the pressure is on Houston to win both of these) but yet be focused and intense enough to perform well (you can nullify their blowout win and put them back on their heels tonight). Hopefully the Blazers have it down.
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