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Portland Trail Blazers vs. Houston Rockets Preview

The Blazers play James Harden, Dwight Howard and the Houston Rockets tonight for the first time since eliminating them from the 2014 NBA playoffs last spring.

Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY Sports

Portland Trail Blazers (22-6) vs. Houston Rockets (19-7)
Monday, December 22
Toyota Center; Houston, TX | 5:00 p.m. PST | Local TV/Radio: KGWHD; 620 AM
Out for the Blazers: Robin Lopez | Out for the Rockets: Terrence Jones
SBN Affiliate: The Dream ShakeTimmay's Viewing Guide | BE's 2014-15 Rockets Season Preview | Blazer's Edge Night

Update: LaMarcus Aldridge has been listed as questionable for this game due to an upper respiratory illness.

The Blazers play the Houston Rockets tonight for the first time since eliminating them from the 2014 NBA playoffs in Game 6 of their first round matchup last spring.

Down two with 0.9 seconds on the clock, Portland point guard Damian Lillard sent the Rockets packing on a series-ending three-pointer following a timeout:

Damian Lillard puts some ice on the Rockets.

The Houston Chronicle followed up with several Rockets and Blazers coaches and players about Lillard's shot in a piece published Saturday. Former Houston forward Chandler Parsons describes the series-clinching shot:

It's a big shot because of the meaning of the game. It was the playoffs. It was an elimination game. It allowed them to advance and ended our season. I think the best game-winners are the ones with the biggest stakes, and the Finals or a playoff makes it bigger than ever. This was up there with any I have ever seen, just with what was at stake. They eliminated us and moved on. Obviously the difficulty of the shot was pretty high, too. It was just a really great shot.

Tonight's matchup obviously doesn't have the same implications as Game 6, but both teams have gotten off to a hot start this season and are near the top of the Western Conference playoff standings.

The Rockets have lost two games in a row, struggling to score against the Pelicans Thursday night and the Hawks on Saturday. Over the last five games, Houston is No. 29 in the NBA in field goal percentage (40.7 percent) and No. 27 in three-point shooting percentage (31 percent), but they've attempted more free throws and outside shots than any other team in the league in that span.

Some Rockets fans consider guard James Harden the most qualified candidate for the NBA's Most Valuable Player award, citing his much improved defense after earning the reputation of a lazy defender last season.

Harden is the No. 2 leading scorer in the league, behind only Thunder guard Russell Westbrook. For the last five games, Harden has averaged 29.6 points a night. Remarkably, this comes with him shooting 40.2 percent from the field and 27.8 percent from deep in that time.

How does Harden get all those points as such an inefficient shooter? He gets to the free throw line over 11 times a game, cashing in on 85.7 percent of those attempts. Harden is an average finisher inside, a horrible midrange jumpshooter and an inefficient chucker from outside, but his ability to draw fouls and sink his free throws is effective, even if it could be considered visually unappealing for everyone watching besides Rockets fans. The majority of his scores come off the dribble, and Harden is undoubtedly the hub of Houston's offense, averaging 9.4 assists per game the last five.

Center Dwight Howard is back in the Rockets' lineup after missing extended time recently. His touch at the rim has been pretty solid in his four games since returning from injury, but he's not shooting well from anywhere else. Howard's gotten to the free throw line 10.8 times a game the last five, shooting 60.5 percent from the stripe.

Small forward Trevor Ariza gets up plenty of shots, but he's been in a pretty bad shooting slump lately, hitting just 30.9 percent of his field goals and 26.7 percent of the nine threes a game he's attempted the last five outings. Ariza's only decent shot right now is the right corner three-pointer.

Power forward Donatas Motiejunas has emerged this year as a legitimate frontcourt option for coach Kevin McHale with forward Terrence Jones out of the lineup since the start of the year. Motiejunas is not a great finisher at the rim, but he's an effective scorer in the paint otherwise and can step back for the occasional three.

Guards Patrick Beverly and Jason Terry have both shot about 10-11 times the last five games, each making about 35 percent of his field goals and a third of his threes. Beverly scores more off the dribble, taking it to the hole more often than Terry, who's been assisted on 100 percent of his three-pointers the last five games, attempting 9.3 shots from deep in that time.

The rest of McHale's rotation doesn't play a huge factor in the offense. Of forwards Kostas Papanikolaou, Tarik Black and Joey Dorsey, along with guards Nick Johnson and Isaiah Canaan, not one has tried more than 4.5 shots per game the last couple weeks and all are at or below 40 percent shooting from the field on those limited attempts.

Houston GM Daryl Morey recently shipped guard Troy Daniels out of town, bringing in guards Corey Brewer and Alexey Shved in the process and waiving wing Francisco Garcia. Both Brewer and Shved may be active for the Rockets tonight. Neither is a threat from deep and both are hovering at about 41 percent field goal shooting this season. Brewer is always a threat to score on fastbreaks, though, and Houston typically pushes the ball pretty hard.

Portland's defense is designed to force teams into shooting midrange jumpers, a shot that Houston takes less often than any other team in the league, according to The Blazers's defense is top-10 or in the NBA or better the last five games in opponents points per game, assists, turnovers, field goal percentage and three-point percentage. Houston attempts more threes than any other team in the league -- 34.8 per game the last five -- but Portland has forced opposing teams into shooting just 16 outside shots a night in that span, the least allowed in the NBA.

The Blazers are on a five-game winning streak after winning an improbable, come-from-behind triple-overtime victory on Friday night in San Antonio and following it up with a 26-point stomping of the Pelicans the next day, in which no Portland starter played more than 30 minutes.

The Blazers offense puts up a lot of points on average shooting percentages, the ball movement not particularly impressive lately, either. Portland has attempted more field goals per game the last five than all other teams but the Grizzlies, though, leading to five straight wins.

Lillard scored a career-high 43 points Friday against the Spurs, following that up with a 6-for-12, 17-point performance in New Orleans. He's been a decent finisher inside recently and an average jumpshooter, but Lillard has hit 42.9 percent of his threes the last five games while picking up six assists per contest.

Forward LaMarcus Aldridge hung 27 points on the Pelicans Saturday in 29 minutes, shooting 12-of-20 from the field. Two-thirds of his shots at the rim have gone in the last handful of games and he's converted 47 percent of his midrange jumpers in that time.

Guard Wesley Matthews has been out-of-sorts lately offensively, struggling to hit his threes with any consistency and unable to establish a solid shooting rhythm in consecutive games. He'll have his hands full tonight trying to keep a lid on Harden defensively, so a huge offensive night from Matthews may not be in the cards.

Wing Nicolas Batum suited up for the Blazers Saturday against New Orleans after sitting out the game in San Antonio the night prior due to a variety of minor injuries. He sank five of his eight shots and racked up five assists, driving to the rim for most of his shots.

Coach Terry Stotts started big man Joel Freeland in the middle against the Pelicans, which is likely to be the case again tonight. Center Chris Kaman came off the bench and went 8-for-10 from the field on Saturday, a stark contrast to the shooting struggles he'd been experiencing the last several games. Reserve forward Thomas Robinson hit six of his eight attempts against New Orleans.

Backup guards Steve Blake and Allen Crabbe don't shoot often, although both are a huge part of Stotts' bench rotation and can hit outside shots when called upon. Forward Dorell Wright received a DNP-CD on Saturday, a day after spurring Portland's offense late with several timely three-pointers against San Antonio.

Houston's defense has given up a lot of points lately as the Rockets have struggled to prevent easy ball movement and defend the three-point line effectively. They've fouled often and sent opposing teams to the free throw line frequently the last couple weeks, but they've also played solid defense within the arc in that time. Teams can score in transition against Houston, but the Blazers don't generally produce many points via fastbreaks.

Both the Rockets and Portland give up a ton of offensive rebounds, but they also grab plenty of their own, too. Expect a lot of second-chance points tonight for both. Howard and Aldridge anchor their respective teams on the boards, but each team employs a group effort and gets plenty of rebounds from the wings and guards. Tonight's game is a very even matchup on the glass, and the team able to rebound better on the defensive end should have the advantage.

Houston wants revenge against the Blazers after they bounced them from the playoffs over seven months ago, but Portland is riding high after taking the Spurs out in three overtimes Friday and dominating the Pelicans for 48 minutes in a wire-to-wire dismantling the next night.

Both teams focus their defensive efforts on shutting down the perimeter and forcing opponents into midrange shots. The Rockets rely heavily on outside shooting and free throws, and if the Blazers can keep Houston's three-point shooters at bay, they could steal a road victory tonight against a motivated foe.

-- Chris Lucia | | Twitter

Sam Tongue's Key Matchup: