Playoff-related Mailbag questions are starting to roll in. Let's address one!
Naturally, as a die-hard Blazer fan I can think of a million reasons why the Blazers will not be able to handle the Rockets. And, as you are also a die-hard Blazer fan, you have expressed a similar tone in your recent articles. Let's put the shoe on the other foot. Pretend you are a die-hard Rockets fan. Why will your beloved Rockets get smothered by the dreaded Blazers?
Brilliant. Let's do it.
If I'm a Rockets fan I'm not worried about whether my team can beat the Blazers. The regular-season record and most numbers tell me I have an advantage. You know what I'm worried about? My team keeping its [stuff] together. This could include the following:
Every scrap of news about Dwight Howard's ankle or Patrick Beverley's knee concerns me. If Howard can be single-covered my biggest, defense-breaking advantage in this series is gone. Harden is the better offensive player but Howard creates such problems for Portland around the hoop--scoring and rebounding--that they practically have to send help to stop him. As soon as that help comes I have the Blazers where I want them. The team that scrambles more in this series will lose it. If I don't run the Blazers around the court, now I'm looking at some pretty decent individual defenders, a bunch of nasty rebounders, a team with offensive firepower. That's dangerous.
Beverley's loss would leave me exposed to the one guy who hasn't killed me all year, Damian Lillard. I like Jeremy Lin's chances against Lillard on the offensive end, but Lillard would cut through Lin like a hacksaw through a Twinkie on the other end. I'd be worried about those 30-point performances that have been missing from Lillard's repertoire in this matchup. Since I still couldn't guard LaMarcus Aldridge, the odds would be even when it comes to superstars.
Attention to Detail
The Rockets ride a couple superstars to glory. The rest of the team is accomplished as well but sometimes predictability and inattention follow in the wake of dependence.
The Trail Blazers make their opponents pay for imprecision. Houston cannot turn over the ball and leave Portland easy, undeserved buckets on the run. Houston must keep the Blazers off of the offensive glass, as second-chance points lie near the heart of Portland's attack. The Rockets must make crisp rotations for 48 minutes. The Blazers play possum, hanging 8-9 points back then going on runs to close the gap when you think you've got the game won. Three-point shooting is their preferred vehicle. Slough off those weak-side close-outs for 3-4 possessions and you've just opened the door to disaster.
In any given moment I trust the Rockets to dominate the Blazers. Over the course of 7 games I'm worried that they'll drift off, allowing unnecessary daylight to an opponent that's specialized in taking advantage of same all season long.
Cohesion and Chemistry
The Rockets are a handful when things go well. When they get thwarted they're not the most resilient group in the universe. Howard, in particular, exhibits some of the most frustrated, defeatist body language in the league when things go wrong. Things always go wrong in a long playoff series. When the chips are down it's 50-50 whether my team is going to bounce back or point fingers at each other, the refs, or the universe at large. That's not a recipe for playoff success.
Houston's defensive efficiency is pretty good but when the defense falls apart, it falls apart. The Rockets won 67% of their games overall this year, 56% when allowing 100 or more. I don't want that average anywhere near the 50% line. The Blazers score a ton anyway. Portland will want to turn every game into a shootout and the Rockets oblige too easily.
The Aldridge Factor
As a Rockets fan I understand that my star duo outranks Portland's. But the Blazers aren't toothless. LaMarcus Aldridge has been a thorn in Houston's side all season long. He's a loose end. I don't like loose ends. But Houston doesn't have a great solution...or if they do they're hiding it well. Terrence Jones has been abysmal matched up against Aldridge. I can see Omer Asik in particular situations but not 30 minutes a game. Putting Howard on Aldridge puts too much pressure on Dwight, distracting him from his main mission of staying in the paint and destroying the opposition.
As long as Aldridge doesn't go bananas I probably live with his points and stay in single coverage, similar to the philosophy the Blazers will likely follow when guarding Howard. But if Aldridge breaks containment my only option is to send help. That's exactly what the Blazers are banking on. Nicolas Batum and Wesley Matthews become far more dangerous against a moving defense than against a set one. Aldridge as the main scorer is fine. Aldridge as the first domino falling less so.
Reliance on Refs
Houston draws more foul shots than anyone in the league. Harden and Howard feast at the charity stripe buffet. That's designed into the game plan. It will almost certainly remain true in this series. The "almost" remains, however. No matter how you slice it, those free throws depend on a force outside your control: the referees. You don't want to be beholden to anything out of your control in a playoff series. I'm not that nervous about this as a Rockets supporter, but I'm aware that my team needs a good plan if whistles start to go astray.
The longer this series goes the better it is for Portland. If I'm a Rockets fan I want this over quickly. I want my victories early, maybe ceding a charity win or two but never giving the impression that the Blazers can take it.
No doubt the Rockets can get an initial win or two. The question is whether they'll be able to capitalize, putting the Blazers down for the count, or whether overconfidence in natural advantages will trip up Houston, bringing Portland up off the mat. The combination of factors above aren't enough to win a series, nor even to provide an advantage on their own. But the Blazers don't need to win because of them. If a series of small leaks offer Portland an opening, their own ability is enough to allow them through it.
The immediate concern isn't the Rockets losing as much as the Rockets making themselves vulnerable to losing. If they don't run the ship tighter than they have in the regular season they're at risk of allowing the Blazers an opportunity. One chance is all it takes.
A Rockets fan has little doubt his team is better than the Blazers. That's not the issue. The real question is, are the Rockets dominant enough to not worry about the Blazers, to win no matter what? They haven't shown that. Houston will be favored in this series and rightly so, but the odds aren't all in their favor. Four wins for Portland out of seven would be surprising, but it's not inconceivable.
Keep those playoff and end-of-season questions coming to the e-mail address below!