The Houston Rockets visit the Blazers tonight in Portland, a matchup sure to feature plenty of fireworks as two of the NBA's most potent offensive attacks square off at the Moda Center.
The Rockets attempt more three-pointers than any team in the league and convert more than every club except the Lakers. Since point guard Jeremy Lin has been sidelined the last several games, though, Houston has been slumping from behind the arc, and even though the Rockets are high-volume shooters from deep, they're only average in efficiency.
In their last five games, only small forward Chandler Parsons has maintained his early-season accuracy from outside. Guards Patrick Beverley and Aaron Brooks and forwards Terrence Jones, Omri Casspi and Francisco Garcia -- all decent-to-good three-point shooters on the season -- are shooting well below their averages from downtown in Lin's absence. Superstar guard James Harden, who launches more triples than anyone on the Rockets roster at almost seven a night, has been able to sustain his lukewarm deep-shooting average at 30 percent on the year.
Houston's ability to convert on three-pointers is pretty bad lately, but they're also shooting poorly in the mid-range. The Rockets'score well near the hoop behind the interior presence of center Dwight Howard, the team's most efficient scorer when not accounting for his 55.4 percent free-throw shooting percentage. Even still, he gets a third of his points at the line and Howard's improved a bit on his conversion rate as the season has progressed.
You can't mention free-throws without mentioning Harden. Does he get bailed out at times by referees, overselling fouls and generally receiving "superstar treatment?" Maybe, but Harden's ability to get to the line must be taken into account either way, as he's attempted over 10 free-throws a night since Lin's been out and he makes about 85 percent of them.
The Blazers will certainly send opposing players to the line, even with their slightly improved paint defense. It wouldn't be unreasonable to expect Houston to step to the line around 30 times tonight, as they've taken 42 and 39 free-throws, respectively, in their last two games against the Magic and the Warriors.
Parsons and Jones have played pretty well lately, becoming much more involved in the offense. Parsons is hitting almost half his three-point attempts right now, and he's always a threat to get to the rim, where he's a great finisher. Jones is capable of drawing his defender out to account for his solid jump-shooting, though he's improved his overall game since reserve big Omer Asik has been hurt and seen limited minutes in the wake of recent trade rumors. Jones isn't a huge interior threat right now, but he's proven capable of scoring inside.
Rounding out the rotation for the Rockets -- who will be coached by assistant Kelvin Sampson as coach Kevin McHale won't be with the team due to the passing of his mother -- are Brooks, Casspi and Garcia. All three get up a fair amount of shots in limited minutes, but only Casspi has played somewhat efficiently recently. After starting the season shooting well, both Brooks and Garcia have come back to Earth in the last couple weeks. Casspi's been Houston's worst outside shooter for a stretch, but he can score closer to the hoop better than the rest of the bench unit.
The Rockets are the highest-volume rebounding team in the league, but the raw numbers are probably slightly inflated due to how many shots they and their opponents attempt per game. Still, Portland struggles on the defensive glass, a strength for Houston. Howard has been a monster on the boards this year, and has been beasting on both ends of the glass in recent weeks. Jones has also stepped up his rebounding game, averaging 10 a night in his last five contests.
Though the Rockets have a huge advantage on the boards with Howard and Jones, Portland's frontcourt unit of forwards LaMarcus Aldridge and Thomas Robinson alongside centers Robin Lopez and Joel Freeland form a formidable group of rebounders, particularly adept at grabbing offensive boards. Houston grabs a ton of total rebounds because of the high volume of shot-attempts in their games, but on the defensive glass they give up a good percentage of available rebounds, and that's where Lopez and Robinson, in particular, shine.
The Blazers' usual outside-in attack should be operable against Houston. The Rockets allow a ton of perimeter shots, and they don't stop teams from converting on them from outside. Though guard Mo Williams and wings Wesley Matthews and Dorell Wright have cooled off considerably from behind the arc in the last handful of games, small forward Nicolas Batum and point guard Damian Lillard are hitting about half their three-point attempts right now.
The Rockets are actually not elite at stopping teams from scoring inside, believe it or not, but that's not a preferred point of attack for Blazers coach Terry Stotts, anyway. Expect a healthy diet of Portland jumpers tonight, because they'll be likely afforded the opportunities by Houston's defense that collapses really well in the middle but struggles more defending the arc.
Lately, Portland's entire starting five and Robinson have been shooting the ball well, with Williams, Wright and Freeland slumping a bit off the bench offensively. Batum, Aldridge, Lillard and Lopez have been efficient, but the bulk of the scoring has come from Aldridge and Lillard. Some combination of the Blazers' secondary scorers -- Matthews, Batum, Lopez and Williams -- needs to find a way to score the ball tonight, because the Rockets put up more points than any team in the league, capable of imposing their style of play on opponents and forcing teams into shootouts, which they often win.
Houston likes to push the ball, but Portland defends the fast break well. Even though the Blazers don't usually get out in the open court often, there will likely be a lot of long misses for the Rockets tonight and they also cough up more turnovers than any team in the NBA. They sometimes have a tough time getting back and defending the break, so catching Houston's defenders on their heels and pushing the tempo would be a good way for Portland to garner some quicker, easier points before the Rockets have time to get back and set up their defense with Howard anchoring the middle.
The last time these two teams met in early November, both Houston and the Blazers shot poorly from outside, but the Rockets dominated Portland on the glass and punished them in the paint on both ends of the floor leading to a 116-101 victory that included 34 trips to the free-throw line for Houston. If not for a horrendous outside shooting night for the Rockets, this game probably would've been even more of a blowout. The Blazers will have to connect on more of their three-pointers tonight and force the issue a little more in the paint if they want to come away with a win. Similarly, they're going to have to defend the arc well and defend the interior much better than the last game against the Rockets.
Houston's attack relies heavily on getting to the line, and the Blazers need to be prepared to absorb somewhere around 20 points from the free-throw line tonight if averages hold.
The Rockets lose when they're defended well on the perimeter and when they're bullied on the glass. Otherwise, they're a pretty consistent team from game-to-game. Teams that pass well and hit outside shots make life difficult for Houston, and Portland fits that bill pretty well on most nights.
If the Blazers defend the arc well, stay competitive with rebounding and run their normal offense efficiently, they have a good chance at nabbing some revenge for the early-season loss they were dealt last month at the hands of the Rockets. Tonight should be a shootout between two of the NBA's best offenses, and whichever team executes with more precision is likely to escape with the victory.
-- Chris Lucia | Twitter
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