With the Blazers vs. Rockets first-round playoff series kicking off this Sunday night, Dave and I decided to preview the series with a conversation covering matchups, strategies, countermoves and more.
Dave: Well, well, well, here we are. One day from the opening of the 2014 playoffs for the Blazers and the Houston Rockets are on the docket. You're the preview guru. Give us a hint. What's going to be the main focus for the Blazers going into this series?
Chris: I think the main focus for Portland -- among many others -- is Rockets guard James Harden, and how to contain him when he has the ball. In four games against the Blazers this regular season, he averaged 30.3 points on 48.1 percent shooting from the field and 45.5 percent shooting from deep, all sharp increases from his stats when he wasn't playing Portland.
Harden is going to be nearly impossible for Blazers coach Terry Stotts and his team to corral. Three-quarters of his scores against Portland this year came off the dribble, including almost half his threes. He doesn't necessarily need the help of his teammates to create. Somehow, Harden also morphs from a decent outside shooter to a three-point sniper when facing the Blazers.
And let's talk about what's left a bitter taste in the mouths of many opposing fanbases this year, Harden's ability to draw free-throws. He averaged over nine trips to the stripe this season, and whether or not you agree with how he earned those free-throws, Harden will get continue getting those calls, as he averaged 11 free-throw attempts a game in the 2013 postseason. When his shot isn't falling -- not often against the Blazers this year -- he still manufactures points for his team. Harden also puts Portland players in huge foul trouble; In the four meeting between the Blazers and Rockets this season, Portland guards Wesley Matthews, Damian Lillard and Mo Williams along with wing Nicolas Batum all averaged more fouls per contest than they had all year.
How do you stop Harden? In single coverage, he can clearly put points on the board whether or not his jumper is falling. When given extra attention from the defense, Harden has teammates on the perimeter ready for the kick-out, not to mention center Dwight Howard down low. What do you think the Blazers should do to prevent -- or cushion, more likely -- the blow from Harden's offensive repertoire?
Dave: Yeah, it's an issue. The default response is to send Nicolas Batum to watch him. But then you leave Chandler Parson's World of Rebounds and Threes open for business. Plus you risk Batum getting in foul trouble, which you can't afford. Then again, who can the Blazers afford to lose out of that starting lineup? I suppose Wesley Matthews is the closest thing to expendable they have with Mo Williams coming off the bench. But the defensive game changes radically with Mo in. The Blazers are walking a tightrope here.
I'm half assuming that the Blazers will use the accounting sheet to cross Harden's and LaMarcus Aldridge's points with each other. If Aldridge balances Harden's scoring, you dampen the net effect on the game. Then you're left with 4 against 4. Can Lillard, Matthews, Batum, and Lopez outdo Beverley, Parsons, Jones, and Howard?
The Big Asterisk in that equation is Howard. If he's providing 16 points and 10 rebounds against single coverage the Blazers have a pretty good chance. If he's dropping 25 and 15, commanding double-teams, Portland's in deep trouble. How do you see Dwight operating in this series and do the Blazers have the ability to keep him contained?
Chris: Like Harden, Howard's numbers shot up when playing the Blazers this year. It just seems to be a matchup that he and Rockets coach Kevin McHale know they can exploit, and I can't see a gameplan Portland could employ from night-to-night in a seven-game series that could slow Howard down enough to make his offensive contributions absorbable while not leaving a gaping hole for one of his teammates to come through.
One thing that comes to mind, though, is making Howard work for everything he gets on both ends (I know, easier said than done). In the Blazers' one win over Houston this year, Aldridge torched Rockets power forward Terrence Jones for 31 points and 25 rebounds. In fact, Jones wilted in all three games he played against Portland this year. If Aldridge can continue punishing Jones -- or whichever power forward on Houston's roster he's matched up against -- Howard will be forced to help out more consistently, hopefully tiring him out a little more on the defensive end and on the boards.
While Rockets point guard Patrick Beverley is a physical perimeter defender, backup point Jeremy Lin and Harden aren't exactly known for their defensive prowess. Lillard should attack the middle often, and Matthews and Batum should follow suit when they have a clear path, hopefully forcing Howard to leave his man to help contest interior shots, possibly getting him into foul trouble. If Portland center Robin Lopez plays the pick-and-roll as well as he did the last couple weeks of the regular season, that'll put more pressure on Howard, as well.
Howard can't help if he's on the bench with fouls, though the only problem with that is it brings in Houston's backup center, Omer Asik, who is also a great post defender. Still, Asik is less of a threat than Howard on the offensive end of the ball and on the boards, so it'd be a net-win for Portland to keep Howard out of the game as much as possible.
I mentioned a couple of the Rockets' backups, which brings up an interesting question: How do these two teams' reserves match up? McHale has a full, healthy roster at his disposal and can go two-deep at just about every position, while most signs point to Stotts utilizing a pretty short rotation.
Dave: It'll probably be business as usual for the Blazers at first. Your bench may be better than our bench but we never play more than two bench players at a time so your bench is actually playing 3/5 of our starting lineup. It works.
I could see a Mo Williams explosion leading to unexpected benefits for a game or two, likely not 7. The other guys I'm watching are Dorell Wright and Thomas Robinson in small-ball lineups. The Blazers are going to need a wrinkle or two. T-Rob's rebounding and Wright's shooting against bigger Rockets could average out or even nullify a Houston advantage for stretches.
The guy I worry about is Joel Freeland. Howard made mincemeat out of Joel when the two faced off in the regular season. I suspect Dwight's eyes will light up when Joel checks into the game. If the Blazers can't play Freeland much they lose what little depth they have at center...depth they'll need against those Houston bigs.
But again, trying to force Houston to go small may not be the worst strategy in the world, provided the Blazers can keep up in rebounding.
Speaking of rebounding, what things have to go right for the Blazers stylistically or statistically to give them the best chance? If you could wave a magic wand and generate the optimal stat advantage for Portland in a given category (besides scoring) which one would you want?
Chris: Rebounding is going to be huge. The team with the most defensive rebounds won each meeting this year between Houston and Portland. Picking up boards on the defensive end is important because it ends opponents' possessions and prevents second-chance points, something the Blazers are usually much better at accumulating than the Rockets. Portland is one of the best rebounding teams in the NBA, both ends of the court included, and Houston is not far behind. Maintaining that advantage on the glass is essentially a must for the Blazers if they want a chance at advancing to the second round.
If Portland were magically granted an advantage in this series in free-throws attempted, fast break points or points in the paint per game, I think a huge leg up would be provided. These are all three statistics the Rockets excel in, while Portland is mostly on the other end of the spectrum.
The only problem is choosing just one of those stats to turn in the Blazers' favor ... I'm gonna go with free-throws attempted, though. It's such a monumental part of how Houston wins games, and canceling it out could really throw Harden, Howard & Co. off. Plus, Portland is the better free-throw shooting team, by far -- Howard really drags things down -- so if they were taking the same amount of or more free-throws than the Rockets every game, they'd gain a decent-sized chunk of extra points at the line.
What specific areas of the game do you think the Blazers should focus on to pull off a series victory? Is there any particular stat, however unlikely, you wish Portland could unexpectedly gain the upper-hand in?
Dave: I agree with rebounding, except on the offensive end for Portland. Also turnovers. Houston doesn't take care of the ball. Portland doesn't force turnovers. I wish that the Blazers could pry away an advantage in that area because it could turn the series. But even if they can't make it happen, if they can just be there when the Rockets get sloppy and capitalize...swinging one or two games would do the trick. But overall I think you're right. Whenever the Blazers control the boards they seem to prosper.
Last thoughts on Portland's first swing at the playoffs in three years?
Chris: It's going to be an entertaining series, there's no doubt about that. Portland will have to find a way to absorb the damage dealt by both Harden and Howard while limiting the effectiveness of tertiary scorers like Beverley, Parsons and Jones. I fully expect Aldridge to step up, especially when Houston shows him single coverage. Lillard will need to play better than he did in the four regular season games against the Rockets and some combination of Matthews, Batum, Lopez and the bench players will have to get points on the board when the Rockets put their defensive attention toward Aldridge and Lillard.
I expect a long, physical series with a ton of three-pointers from both sides, as McHale and Stotts try to gameplan against each other's star players and exploit whatever advantages they have from game-to-game.
-- Chris Lucia | email@example.com | Twitter