Beating the Rockets will not be easy.
Houston has gotten the better of Portland three out of four times this season, the most deflating instance coming in their meeting on Mar. 9. Portland fumbled away a win in the last minute, allowing James Harden to hit a game-tying three-pointer with 8.8 seconds left in regulation. Nic Batum threw a lazy lob on the ensuing inbounds play, and the Blazers went on to lose in overtime.
Portland isn't playoff-tested, and confidence in the Blazers isn't what it was in December. They will be the underdog. In order to beat the Rockets, they will have to do some things they do poorly (like stopping the fastbreak), and lock in on the things they do well (limiting three-pointers).
Let's take a look at four factors that will go into a Blazers upset of the Rockets in the first round.
Stop Patrick Beverley at the three-point line
Portland is very good at defending the three-point line as a team, and that could come in handy against Beverley, who has shot much better from outside in Rockets wins (40 percent) that Rockets losses (25 percent).
In the Rockets' three victories over Portland, Beverley has shot just 29 percent from three. However, he's been able to score handily, averaging 13.6 points per game. Damian Lillard and Mo Williams have played him much too tight off the dribble in all three losses, allowing Beverley to disengage from the three-point line and create havoc at the rim.
Many of Patrick Beverley's threes come from the corners.
Beverley is most dangerous on the drive and in spot-up situations from downtown. He's shot just 13 three-pointers as the primary ball-handler in halfcourt situations all year. Almost counter-intuitively, backing off Beverley when he's holding the ball -- and sticking to him like glue when he's not -- will be the best way to stop him from deep.
Attack Terrence Jones on offense
Sending LaMarcus Aldridge right at Terrence Jones does a couple things. First, it sets up Portland's most reliable offensive weapon early. Pushing Jones into foul trouble and forcing the Rockets to mash together a lineup with Chandler Parsons, Omer Asik and Dwight Howard down low is not in Kevin McHale's game plan.
Second, Jones is a rebounding machine. He is averaging 9.1 rebounds per-36 minutes. Given where Aldridge likes the ball, making Jones defend the Blazers big man is a good way to push him away from the paint on defense. It will be difficult to crash the boards when he is busy contesting 16-foot jumpers.
Getting Jones off the glass and out on the perimeter is a good way to negate his propensity for defensive rebounds. And, of course, to stop him from grabbing easy second chance buckets.
Pressure Jeremy Lin
Lin is 30th in the NBA in turnovers (min. 65 G, 28 MPG) and ranked 117th in the NBA in assist-to-turnover ratio. The former Knicks sensation is adept at running the break for Houston's second unit, but has a tendency to commit critical mistakes.
Left unattended on the fast break, Lin will often dribble straight down a low-pressure lane, barging into opposing players and unnecessarily leaving his feet. Off the pick-and-roll, Lin's first move is often a step-over move in which his exposed dribble is easily swatted by the nearest wing help defender.
Lin's high dribble through traffic should give the Blazers some chances for steals.
Portland has used Nicolas Batum to pressure opposing point guards like Stephen Curry and Tony Parker this season in big game situations. It would be interesting if Terry Stotts used Batum on Lin for a stretch to see if the long-armed Frenchman could create opportunities in transition for Portland.
Keep Chandler Parsons from getting out on the fast break
This will be Batum's toughest assignment. Parsons is one of the deadliest shooters in the NBA, not only from three-point land, but in transition. He is shooting a ridiculous 60 percent on field goals -- including 44 percent from three -- on transition plays this season. A fifth of Parsons offensive plays come from the break, and he is too efficient for Portland not to gameplan for him.
Houston runs on made baskets, and stopping Parsons will not just be about who gets back for Portland, but where they get back. The Rockets set up along the arc so well that if a Blazers wing is having to cover a big at the other end, it could mean a missed rotation and an easy Parsons three-pointer.
Mike Dunleavy occupies Dwight Howard on the pick-and-roll, giving Joakim Noah time to react to Chandler Parsons.
Parsons is also the primary ball handler in the PNR in nearly 16 percent of all his offensive plays. However, he's not particularly fleet of foot, and playing him the right way will result in contested shots. Batum should look to fight up and around screens, and engage with the screener as long as he can, should he get hung up on his hip. Parsons isn't quick enough to beat Aldridge or Robin Lopez down low, so if Batum or Wesley Matthews can't stay with him around the pick, they should occupy the Houston big at all costs.
Outside of the staid story lines -- Dwight Howard vs. LaMarcus Aldridge, James Harden vs. the free throw line -- these four factors could play a big part in how this series shakes out. There are hundreds of variables that go into who wins a playoff series. For Portland, taking care of a few details here and there might just give them the triumph over Houston they've been looking for all season long.
-- Dane Carbaugh | @DaneCarbaugh