Here's a round-up of links to help get you ready for Game 1 of a Western Conference playoff series between the Houston Rockets and Portland Trail Blazers, set to tip off at the Toyota Center at 6:00 p.m. PT on Sunday.
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Zach Lowe of Grantland.com writes...
The Blazers were a below-average defensive team all season, and both of Houston's stars torched them. Dwight Howard overwhelmed Robin Lopez in the post, shooting 60 percent on about 10 post-ups per game against Portland and drawing a ton of fouls, per Synergy. The Blazers hate doubling the post, but Lopez had no answer for Howard's combination of speed and power. It was ugly.
Portland has other weapons - Wes Matthews is going to post the crap out of Harden, and the team's expert offensive rebounding could hurt Houston, which goes through fits of laziness on the glass. But the Rockets should have enough on both ends to take this - provided Beverley is really ready to go.
PREDICTION: Houston in five
Kelly Dwyer of Yahoo's Ball Don't Lie writes...
For those that haven't seen much of these teams this year, understand this will still be a hellaciously fun series even if the shots aren't going in. The Blazers whip the ball around in ways that will remind you of Dallas' championship turn in 2011. Dwight Howard absolutely dominated the well-intentioned Robin Lopez in the post this season, and the Rockets (rightfully) fire at will from behind the 3-point line. Rockets guard Patrick Beverley will charm you, even if he really is just playing on one knee right now, and you'll be shocked the words "LaMarcus Aldridge" and "trading block" were ever uttered.
Of course, those two were put together mainly because Aldridge was unhappy with Portland's stasis. This regular season changed all that.
Then again, a first-round ouster isn't exactly what LMA is looking for. And it's certainly not what Houston and Dwight Howard were expecting when they put pen to paper last July. This will be a fascinating series to watch.
Prediction: Houston in 6.
Jason Quick of The Oregonian with a nice profile of Wesley Matthews...
The biggest, he says, is what he considers his "abandonment" by his father, whose relationship ended with Moore (they were never married) when Wesley was 3. After winning back-to-back titles as Magic Johnson's backup, Wes Sr. played eight seasons overseas. When he returned to the states, Wesley said he attended some of his AAU tournaments and called on his birthday and Christmas, but once he got to high school, all contact stopped.
"That's stressful,'' Wesley said. "It takes a toll.''
Wes Sr. would rather focus on the good times - the anointment by the Lakers greats, and the present relationship the two enjoy, the father giving the son tips and observations after games.
"Look, all of this is a testament to him, all the credit goes to him,'' Wes Sr. said. "This was his dream, and this was his hard work. All I did was help birth him. But I tell you, I couldn't be a prouder father to see his development. To see him today, and to watch him today is like a beautiful dream come true.
Matt Moore of CBSSports.com writes...
X-Factor: Jeremy Lin. The beleaguered point guard has had an up-and-down season. But against Portland, I've got a bizarre number for you. The Rockets were 28 point better on defense with Lin on the floor. Even if that number is conflated with the work of his teammates, as long as he's not a bleeding wound defensively, that's huge. He runs the pick and roll well and can shoot, and the Rockets need both of those things to keep up with the Blazers' offense. He averaged 18 points per 36 minutes vs. the Blazers this season.
Mo Williams should dominate this matchup of backup point guards but instead Lin has been huge.
It should be an entertaining, wide open, and high-scoring series, but Portland's defense and lack of home court eventually does them in.
Rockets in six.
Amin Elhassan of ESPN.com (Insider) writes...
Despite not having home-court advantage, the Blazers facing the Rockets has to be looked at as a positive for [Damian] Lillard, who will be going against a less-than-100 percent Patrick Beverley, who is still shaking off the effects of a torn meniscus in his right knee. While Houston's defense has improved this season, the Rockets are still vulnerable on the perimeter, and Lillard has to take advantage of the matchups at point guard, whether it's Beverley or the defensively challenged Jeremy Lin.
On the other hand, Lillard has to bring better effort and awareness defensively, particularly in pick-and-roll coverage, a main staple of Houston's offense. Lillard has a bad habit of getting caught on screens (which leads to dribble penetration and will open up Houston's 3-point shooters) or, worse, going under on screens, something that Lin and Beverley (and even third-string players such as Isaiah Canaan) will exploit.2. What's the scariest thing -- good or bad -- about the Blazers?
Dan Feldman of Pro Basketball Talk writes...
Will this just be a parade to the rim for the Rockets? More specific to the general defensive concerns, Portland faces a particularly daunting challenge in keeping Houston away from the rim.
The Rockets take 39.8 percent of their shots at the rim, best among playoff teams. The Trail Blazers allow their opponents to take 34.0 percent of their shots at the rim, worst among playoff teams.
Portland must somehow cut off Harden's attacks (by methods other than fouling and sending him to the line for easy points) and keep Howard from getting too deep (maybe fouling him, in certain situations, is OK). Even the Trail Blazers' soft pick-and-roll coverage might not do the trick. The Rockets both drive and roll with reckless abandon.
Rockets in 7
An ESPN.com roundtable of Henry Abbott, Tom Haberstroh and Ethan Sherwood Strauss write...
Abbott: 3s, 3s and more 3s. If the Blazers shoot enough of 'em and have the slightest luck hitting 'em, they'll win. I'm not picking Portland because this season Houston is a little better at defending the arc (opponents shooting 35 percent, instead of 37 last season), while to my eyes it's especially effective against the Blazers, who make 37 percent of 3s against the league this season but just 32 percent against Houston.
Haberstroh: Their inexperience. Outside of Robin Lopez, none of their starters has made it out of the first round, and you can throw head coach Terry Stotts into that mix as well. That speaks to their relative youth, but if they can get behind the idea that they have nothing to lose, this could be an advantage against a more pressured Rockets team.
Strauss: Damian Lillard's ability to hit "bad" shots has to scare any defense. It's especially scary to the Rockets given the status of Beverley's knee. We stopped talking about Lillard after the Blazers tailed off, but his first playoff series could be a big one. Houston's perimeter defense is shaky.
Jason Friedman of Rockets.com with some thoughts from coach Kevin McHale...
(on LaMarcus Aldridge)
He's a helluva player. When he gets loose he's a tough shot maker, he can shoot over the top. We're going to give him some different looks, we're going to do some different things to try to get him off his game, but he's one of those guys where if he's making those tough, turnaround fadeaways, it's hard.
(If you choose to go with Dwight [Howard] and Omer [Asik] together, do you think it will work better than it did earlier in the year?)
I think the ball is playing ahead of our bigs more than it was, and we're not waiting for them (the bigs) as much. I think everybody is a little bit more comfortable with what we're doing, so yeah, you hope it works better.
Kerry Eggers of the Portland Tribune on the challenge that faces Rockets power forward Terrence Jones, a Portland native...
When Jones was in high school, [LaMarcus] Aldridge was already entrenched as a starting power forward for the Blazers. Now Aldridge's credentials have blown up even more, and Jones isn't boasting he intends to shut him down.
"With all the great power forwards in this league, he's one of them," Jones said. "He's an All-Star. He's a scorer. It's going to be hard to guard him. I'll just do the best I can."
"He's a good player," McHale said. "He hits tough shots -- (especially) that little fadeaway over his right shoulder. He's a tough shot-maker. Tough shot-makers at times can get you down. We just have to make him take a lot of shots to get his points."
Joe Freeman of The Oregonian on Dwight Howard...
In an unexpected, out-of-nowhere Friday afternoon rant, the Houston Rockets' All-Star declared he was heading home - to Krypton - for a visit with Jor-El, Superman's father. Howard said he had a superhero cape to pick up and a playoff series to discuss.
"I gotta go get the cape," Howard said. "I'm actually going to go to Krypton tonight. I've got a meeting with Jor-El and we're going to talk about the playoffs. He's been watching the season. He told me to get the cape ready. He ironed it, put some stuff on it to stop anything from getting to my body. It's pretty much ready."
Chris Haynes of CSNNW.com writes about Thomas Robinson facing his former team...
"It's a blessing in disguise," Robinson told CSNNW.com. "I get to go back with my team and we're just going to go down there and try to get a W. That's my main focus.
"I'm not worried that I played there before, not worried about them trading me, not really too concerned about anything the Houston organization has to offer besides having us move to the next round."
Erik Gundersen of The Columbian writes...
Tactically, the Blazers haven't been shy to address their focus for this series.
"Transition, transition, transition, transition," in the words of Mo Williams.
The Rockets are top-five in the league in pace, measured in possessions per 48 minutes.
It's their lack of one traditional ball-handler or designated creator, something some teams would consider a weakness, that is their strength in getting out on the break.
"Every time they rebound they are looking to run and push it," Stotts said. "It's a mindset with them. They have multiple ball handlers who can get the ball and go whether it's (James) Harden, (Jeremy) Lin, (Patrick) Beverley or (Chandler) Parsons. They don't just rely on one guy."
The Associated Press reports...
Trail Blazers coach Terry Stotts expects guard Damian Lillard to make a quick adjustment to playoff basketball.
''I think he'll be a seasoned veteran five minutes into Game 1,'' Stotts said.
And now he's ready to test himself in the playoffs.
''I'm looking forward to it,'' Lillard said. ''For me, I'm just going to try and go into it and play it like another basketball game, and not put too much pressure on the fact that it's my first playoff game, or that we're on the road, or all those other things. I'm just going to try and play like it's another basketball game.''
The Associated Press reports...
''Just being here is not good enough,'' said Chandler Parsons, who made his playoff debut last year. ''We want to win and we want to contend for a championship and we want to be the last team standing.''
James Harden, who is fifth in the NBA in scoring with 25.4 points a game, believes the experience of last year will help Houston this time around.
''I think last year that first-round playoff series gave us a little taste of what it feels like to be in the playoffs,'' he said. ''So hopefully we're familiar with the playoffs and whatnot and we go out there and just play basketball.''
Simmons: Controversial opinion: I don't think Houston can beat Portland if Beverley's not healthy, because for two reasons. One, he's really their only guys on the perimeter who can guard anyone. And two, I think he's kind of the key guys for them from a toughness standpoint and they feed off him. If he's not right, I think that's really going to effect them. It puts a lot of pressure on Jeremy Lin.
Oh, by the way, Jeremy Lin versus Damian Lillard might be the all-time "nobody can guard nobody" matchup. Everybody just clear out of the way and let guys get layups if that happens.
Lowe: Unless we get a couple of random cross matches where Harden is guarding Lillard. Then the universe might implode on itself. By the way, any time you have, during one season, like three YouTube compilations of your horrible defense become viral, you know that you've had a bad defensive season.
Holdahl has assembled just about every media prediction out there if you're interested.
A few hundred Blazers fans held a flash mob at Lloyd Center on Saturday.
Here's Portland Roundball Society's series preview...
CORBIN: Well, Joe, normally I would do that. I am a bitter and sad man whose only joys come in the form of old Baseball Prospectuses and seeing the things I love crushed. For instance, I might normally say something like, "The Blazers have a terrible defense, and an especially bad pick and roll defense, one that has been lit up by teams like the Losetown Sock-its, and in fact, the Socks themselves, all year." But, I dunno, I just have a good FEELING about this one!
JOE: I expected you to appease my swirling thoughts with math and reason, but you're saying that feelings are all you have? Feelings are all I have, Corbin, but I had hopes for you. I thought you were an analyst.
CORBIN: I was, until I learned about girls, yessireebob! The old me would have looked at these teams' regular season matchups: a 116-101 Smocks victory in November, a 111-104 Blazers victory in December, a 126-113 Pet Rocks victory in January, and a "pretty devastating" 118-113 Blazer overtime loss in March, and determined that the Blazers' crummy defense (107.4 points surrendered per hundred possessions, 22nd in the league) is going to have trouble keeping up with the Lockets' atomic powered spread screen and roll attack (111 points per hundred possessions, 4th in the NBA.). BUT THE NEW ME is looking at that Damian Lillard guy and saying "Hey, who can guard that dude!?" Now that point guard P-Lick Blurry has been arrested by the NSA!
David MacKay of Rip City Project looks at the experience levels of both teams...
Of the Portland starters, only Lopez and Matthews have made it out of the first round. Aldridge and Batum have only experienced first round exits, while Lillard has no playoff experience whatsoever. That last part concerns me greatly. As an all-star point guard, Lillard has been depended upon as a leader thus far, but he's approaching uncharted territory. If anyone can rise to the occasion, it's him, but his inexperience has potential to be a serious weakness.
Of the Houston starters, both all-stars (Howard & Harden) have been to the NBA Finals. The rest of them are young, but got a taste of the playoffs last season.
-- Ben Golliver | firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter