Update (Friday): Blazers forward LaMarcus Aldridge (ankle) will play while forward Nicolas Batum (shoulder) will not play. Rockets forward Chandler Parsons (calf) will not play.
Mike Tokito of The Oregonian reports on Twitter that Blazers coach Terry Stotts will move rookie center Meyers Leonard back to the bench to acommodate Aldridge's return. -- Ben
The Portland Trail Blazers got some good news on Thursday. LaMarcus Aldridge announced his intention to return from a four-game absence as the Blazers face the Houston Rockets in a 7:30 p.m. Friday game televised locally on CSNNW and nationally on ESPN. The Blazers are 0-4 since Aldridge's injury and have lost 6 straight games, all against teams with winning records.
The Rockets carry a 42-33 mark into this game, 15-22 on the road. That's good for 7th in the West, though they're neck and neck with the Golden State Warriors for the 6th seed and are likely the stronger of the two teams. It'll be another tough matchup for the Blazers.
Volume offense is Houston's calling card. They're in a virtual tie for 1st place in the league in points scored, in another virtual tie for 2nd in points scored on the road. They're 2nd in fast break points per game, 2nd in points in the paint, 5th in free throw attempts, 8th in field goal percentage, 9th in three-point percentage. They're 6th in offensive efficiency while maintaining the highest pace in the league. That's scary.
Much of the blame for Houston's excellent offense can be laid at the feet of James "Told You So" Harden. He's averaging 26 points, 6 assists, 5 rebounds, and 2 steals while staking his claim to being the real best shooting guard in the league. He does everything well, but his most striking stat may be 10 free throws drawn per game. That's ultra-superstar territory.
Harden is surrounded by starters who shoot amazingly well from the field. Small forward Chandler Parsons is Houston's second-leading scorer. He fires 48% from the field, 38% from the arc. Point guard Jeremy Lin: 44%. Center Omer Asik: 55%. New to the starting lineup is 6'10". 250 lb Greg Smith, beneficiary of Houston's in-season trades. Rebounding is his main job. When he does put up the ball: 62.5%. You can't sleep on anyone. On their best nights the Rockets will share the ball with abandon, rotating around the attention the defense pays to Harden and finding everybody in their comfort zone. The only hitch in the plan comes when they get careless or lazy and commit too many turnovers...a category in which they're worst in the league.
Houston's bench goes 8 or 9 deep with guards Carlos Delfino, Francisco Garcia, and Patrick Beverly playing out of the backcourt. Delfino is the main guy in that group but he's been injured and is listed as day-to-day. They are not the scorers that Harden and Lin are but all of them can shoot the three. Terrence Jones and Donatas Motiejunas play the big positions, providing rebounding and more shooting respectively.
Defense separates the Rockets from the NBA's elite teams. They're not bad but they're not that impressive either. Defensive rebounding is clearly their calling card. They lead the league in D-rebounding percentage. They're not bad in the paint either but the farther you go out on the floor the worse they get. They don't force enough turnovers and they're not shot-blockers. They end up relying on position defense that their guards can't supply. The bigs can't cover for the mistakes of the backcourt. Games against smart opponents become precarious affairs.
Bad teams never take advantage of the Rockets' weaknesses and end up losing by 30. Good teams force Houston into slower, 90-point affairs and watch the energy and cohesion collapse. Most of Houston's games are one or the other. Either they play free and easy and ride their offense to a 20 point win or get gummed up and lose by 10 because their defense can't compensate.
The Blazers have a couple sparks of hope tonight. Aldridge's return should buoy his teammates even if Nicolas Batum bows out. Portland's three-point shooters could get a nice workout. If the Rockets oblige by turning over the ball the Blazers could even negate that Grand Canyon of a fast-break disparity (2nd vs. 26th teams in the league). But Houston's great rebounding will likely make Portland's scanty paint production even scantier. If J.J. Hickson can dive on Asik and Aldridge can wheel on Smith the Blazers might be able to scare up some close buckets. If those points of attack fail no amount of jump shooting will be enough. Wesley Matthews will have a tall order matched up against Harden. If that distracts from his own offense then Portland may not be able to scare up enough three-point shooting to roll past the Rockets. Portland's younger defenders will also be on display for better or worse. They might do well on a given possession but they lose focus habitually. Turn your head on the Rockets and they'll score 5 on you. Add in foul shots and the night could get out of hand.
With a losing record for the season assured, the interests of Portland fans have been whittled down to two:
1. See a fun game.
2. Watch to see what the youngsters do.
By those criteria this game should be great. If the arena crew has to put electricians tape over the scoreboard to avoid embarrassment, well...that's the way it goes sometimes. If the Blazers do manage the upset win, so much the better.
The Dream Shake is as weighty of a Rockets blog as you'll come across, well worth a read.
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