This evening we see whether the Blazers are willing to do what it takes to take control of this series or whether a "good effort, hard-fought first round, we'll get ‘em next year" ending is in our future.
It's as simple as that. This is it.
There are games remaining, to be sure. It's first to four nowadays, not first to three. And given the way Portland has played so far I believe that the Blazers will win Game 5 at home to force a Game 6 in Houston even should they lose tonight. But winning three games straight, while both possible and precedented (why isn't that really a word, by the way, since we have "un"), stretches the limits of credulity. At that point you'd have to MacGyver a way to the win, and that's not a good situation to be in against a playoff-caliber opponent.
Portland has shown the ability to play with Houston. They have shown they can weather the Rockets' defense and find ways to score as Houston tires. They have not shown enough consistent physicality, drive, or poise thus they have not been able to take over games. They need to take over this one.
Houston is not likely to change their defensive tactics at this point. They're going to focus on Roy and Aldridge. They're going to concede a semi-contested outside shot from Portland's stars but wrap either player tightly should they drive. In particular they're going to channel Brandon into a box and shut the lid.
The Blazers have to be ready for this. They have to understand that this is Brandon's team, but not Brandon's game alone. Roy did decently given what he had to work with (and against) in Game 3. He started out slowly but eventually found a way to generate buckets and energy without simply lofting jumpers. His teammates, on the other hand, are still standing and watching him operate. That two- or three-man collapsing defense is coming from somewhere. The Rockets aren't just cloning extra men out there. If Brandon can't make one pass to the open guy when the help comes because the Rockets are too big and are taking away the angles then let it be two...one backwards and the second whipped from that guy to the guy who's open because of the help. If Houston is recovering to take away the jumper then that once-open guy should put the ball on the floor and drive past the man who's recovering. It's awfully hard to reverse direction when you're scrambling out from helping in order to stop a shot.
Because the Blazers as a whole aren't working to create passing angles and are hesitating in their decision-making processes they're essentially giving the Rockets a free pass to bury in the lane in an avalanche of defenders. There's no penalty for Houston doing so. Portland can't win like that.
The Blazers also need to make some tough defensive decisions. Their obvious priority is to take opportunities away from Yao Ming and it's the right one. The Rockets aren't the same team when he's not featured. They're far more vulnerable. But that focus strains the rest of the defense.
You're not going to be able to have everything go perfectly. Given the fact that you're spending resources on Yao, you have to concede a shot somewhere else. In the last game the decision seemed to be to give help on Aaron Brooks. Portland held him to a poor shooting night but Houston smelled where the help was coming and got their power forwards wide open shots because of it, reaping a fantastic benefit. Naturally if your forward can help and recover with more speed and energy than was displayed in that game you go that route. Assuming that's not possible you have to ask whether the points you took away from Brooks were more important than the points scored by Scola and Landry. How consistently dominant will Brooks be if you do leave him on an island with Steve Blake?
You also have to ask if you have the right matchups. Warts and all, I don't think the Blazers can do much better defensively than they did in the last game with the personnel they have. They can make different defensive decisions given the matchups they have, but you're not going see an amazing defender that we don't know about magically appear to save the day.
However one of the ways you put pressure on the opponent is making them match up with you. We've already seen the two-center lineup. How well would Brooks deal with having to guard either Roy or Fernandez? Again, there's no absolute answer here but you try to anticipate points you'll give up having a bigger guy on Brooks versus points you could potentially score and problems you could cause.
Perhaps most importantly the Blazers need to claim an advantage on the boards. They haven't won all year without rebounding and it's not going to start now.
None of this is new to this squad. Most of it has been emphasized since the beginning of the season, if not before. Some of it they've dealt with heavily in this series already. Once the strategies are determined (and I assume they are already) the questions become simple: Do you have enough guts to hit these guys and keep hitting? Do you have enough endurance to weather what they'll throw at you? Do you have enough courage to keep playing your game even when they make it hard? Do you have enough confidence to win...this...series?
On the one hand you're hopeful because the Blazers played well in the second half and almost stole that game. It's hard to imagine them playing worse in the first half. Plus the Blazers' pattern this year says win tonight. However Artest 3-8, Brooks 3-11, and Yao 2-7 should have won you that game versus Houston. If you can't win when that happens, when can you? If Game 3 was the Rockets' designated Bad Game for the series and the Blazers didn't take advantage, things look pretty bleak.
Much will be answered this evening. 6:00. Be there.
Check out the Rockets' build-up at TheDreamShake.