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Portland Trail Blazers vs. Houston Rockets Preview

The Blazers tangle with the Rockets tonight in Houston, a preview of a potential playoff match-up. Behind the steady play of James Harden and Dwight Howard, the Rockets have taken possession of third place in the Western Conference and have won 14 of their last 16 games.

Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports
Sunday, March 9
Toyota Center; Houston, TX | 4:00 p.m. PDT | Local TV/Radio: KGWHD, 620 AM
Out for the Blazers: Joel Freeland | Out for the Rockets: Greg Smith

The Blazers meet up with the Houston Rockets tonight at the Toyota Center, continuing their five-game road trip after kicking it off with a tough loss to the Mavericks Friday night.

Houston is currently in the midst of a four-game winning streak, also having won 14 of 16 contests dating back to late January. In the last week alone, the Rockets have taken down both the Heat and the Pacers, defeating Indiana by 26 points.

Offensively, Houston is capable of racking up huge numbers, averaging 106 points a game over the last five and shooting over 49 percent from the field. The Rockets move the ball pretty efficiently and get to the free-throw line often behind the efforts of guard James Harden and center Dwight Howard. Houston does turn the ball over often and they're pretty pedestrian as a team shooting from outside. Still, they've clearly managed to overcome those issues, sitting at 43-19 and currently holding the No. 3 seed out West.

For the last couple weeks, Harden has cooled off slightly from behind the three-point line. He's about average from deep for the year, but he's sunk to 29 percent from outside lately. Harden has, however, ramped up his efficiency on his overall shooting, connecting on almost 52 percent of his overall field-goals and has racked up 7.2 assists a night recently. Most of his offense is created on his own, as he is great at getting to the rim and pretty solid at finishing inside, also drawing almost seven fouls per contest. Harden will get his shots either way, but forcing him to be more perimeter-oriented -- he's a very willing outside shooter, even though it's not his best shot -- might make his night more difficult. Even so, Harden is a capable scorer if left open from deep and corralling him is much easier said than done.

Howard shoots almost exclusively in the paint, preferring to operate as close to the basket as possible where he's a strong finisher. Allowing Howard deep post positioning is almost voluntarily giving up two points, so preventing him from getting good looks and touches near the rim should be a priority tonight for the Blazers. Like with Harden, though, containing Howard on paper and in practice are two different things and Portland's frontcourt will have its hands full tonight.

Small forward Chandler Parsons is a dynamic scorer, able to get inside and finish but also normally a good catch-and-shoot three-point shooter. He leads the Rockets in three-point shooting percentage this year, but has been slumping from outside as of late, converting on less than a quarter of his attempts. Parsons' passing ability helps generate points for Houston, as he racks up six assists a night and contributes to the flow of the offense even if he's not hitting his own shots.

Forward Terrence Jones is a solid post player, making over 67 percent of his shots the last several games. He doesn't drift too far from the paint with the ball and won't draw many fouls, either, but Jones is still an effective scorer. In two games against Portland this year, Jones hasn't been a huge factor, but he's playing efficiently lately and can't be overlooked.

Point guard Patrick Beverley is an aggressive player, not afraid to take it to the hole. He's not an elite finisher inside, but he is an excellent three-point shooter, especially when assisted by a teammate. Beverley has been hot from behind the arc the last five games, hitting over 52 percent of his attempts.

Big men Donatas Motiejunas and Omer Asik get solid minutes, but neither plays a huge role with the ball. Asik is, however, important to the offense with his great screen-setting ability. Forward Jordan Hamilton comes off the bench, taking almost eight shots in about 22 minutes a game, though he's not been very efficient lately. Guard Jeremy Lin picks up about 16 minutes a night, currently struggling with his shot, as well.

Houston plays pretty stout defense, anchored by Howard. They don't force a ton of turnovers, but the Rockets have limited opposing teams to 45.5 percent field-goal shooting and 29 percent from outside the last five games. They also don't pick up a lot of shooting fouls, which could be somewhat problematic for the Blazers, a team that gets a decent chunk of its points at the foul line.

Portland guard Damian Lillard hasn't scored the last five games as often as he did when teammate LaMarcus Aldridge recently missed a few weeks of play. Still, Lillard is converting on about 45 percent of his attempts, even if he's looked for his own shot less. He's having a hard time from outside right now, though, hitting less than 30 percent of his threes. Lillard is also going to the line less frequently as of late, attempting only a couple free-throws a night. Things don't get much easier against the Rockets, as Lillard will likely be matched up with Beverley for most of the night, known as a tough, scrappy defender.

Aldridge lit up Dallas' defense a couple nights back with 30 points on 13-28 shooting, but as Dave noted in his game recap, he doesn't look as explosive as he did before his groin injury. Aldridge is obviously a huge part of the Blazers' offense, and they'll need him tonight and on this five-game road trip against some tough opponents.

Wings Wesley Matthews, Nicolas Batum and sixth-man Mo Williams all have performed pretty similarly the last several games. All three are taking between 10 and 11 shots a game, with Matthews converting on 42.6 percent of his attempts, Batum hitting 43.4 percent of his and Williams making 47.9 percent of his shots. All three are also in the mid-30s on three-point shooting. For Williams and Batum, that's about average. For Matthews, his 34.8 percent three-point shooting the last several games is indicative of some struggles from deep, as he's a 44.7 percent three-point shooter on the season.

Aside from a poor offensive performance in Friday night's loss to the Mavericks, center Robin Lopez has been a great scoring option down low, hitting almost 63 percent of his shots the last five games. He also picks up a good amount of points at the free-throw line, drawing almost four foul shots a game. Of note is Lopez' ability to hit those free-throws, as he's made 94.9 percent of them the last couple weeks.

Off the bench, forward Thomas Robinson was a spark plug on Friday night after coming back from injury. His energy off the bench is important for the Blazers, but if he doesn't shoot well, it can be a detriment at times. Wing Dorell Wright has slipped back to his season averages the last five games after playing pretty well in the absence of Aldridge, as he's now back to about 38 percent shooting from the field and 35.3 percent from deep. Forwards Will Barton and Victor Claver both picked up DNP-CDs on Friday night, as Portland coach Terry Stotts opted to go with guard C.J. McCollum at the end of his rotation. McCollum's shot the ball pretty well in limited minutes lately, making half his shots and almost 46 percent of his threes. Center Meyers Leonard hasn't been a huge factor offensively, but he does hit over half his shots, too.

The Blazers' defense has been somewhat up-and-down lately, usually stopping weaker opponents -- besides in a tough loss to the Lakers -- and giving up more points to talented teams. On average, Portland has given up less than 93 points, 40.9 percent shooting from the field and just 26.2 percent shooting from deep the last five games, all good-to-great numbers. The Blazers haven't forced many turnovers, though, and they've been putting teams at the line with regularity, allowing Dallas 34 free-throws on Friday night. Houston is a good team that is playing well, so Portland's effort will have to be there tonight on defense if they want a solid chance at the win.

Both teams have been pretty dominant on the boards lately, each convincingly out-rebounding opponents. The Rockets have an excellent rebounding frontcourt, with Howard, Asik and Jones all able to rack up big individual numbers. Though Howard is great on both ends of the court, his ability to rebound offensively extends Houston possessions and provides him easy looks inside. Portland has also seen some excellent individual rebounding efforts of late. Batum, Robinson and Leonard have all contributed in big ways on the glass, complementing the consistent efforts of Lopez and Aldridge. It's hard to predict which team tonight has the rebounding advantage, but it's worth noting that in the previous three meetings between the Rockets and Blazers, the team that has garnered more rebounds has won in each instance.

Portland will need to give a more consistent effort tonight on both ends of the floor than they did Friday, because Houston has an array of offensive weapons and its defense isn't often forgiving. Taking advantage of the Rockets' turnovers would be a good place for the Blazers to gain an advantage, but they haven't been able to turn opposing teams' turnovers into points very well lately. This game could resemble playoff basketball, as both teams are among the best in the Western Conference and are fighting for playoff positioning. A postseason meeting with the Rockets is the series that many Portland fans fear most, as Houston has handled the Blazers at home this season and it's a tough match-up overall.

A win tonight for the Blazers -- however unlikely it may be -- would be a huge bounce back after Friday's loss, and would set the tone for the rest of this road trip. Harden and Howard will be difficult to subdue, for sure, but limiting their teammates' contributions would go a long way toward a Portland victory.

-- Chris Lucia | | Twitter