The Blazers face the Houston Rockets tonight in Game 2 of their best-of-seven, first-round playoff series.
The narratives surrounding Portland's 122-120 Game 1 victory are plentiful; Blazers forward LaMarcus Aldridge dropped a career-high 46 points and pulled down 18 rebounds, he and guard Damian Lillard combining for 77 of Portland's 122 points. On the losing side, Houston guard James Harden shot just 8-for-28 from the field and 3-for-14 from deep for 27 points while center Dwight Howard shot 9-for-21, also ending with 27 points.
Blazers coach Terry Stotts, his team down by double-digits with just a few minutes left, intentionally fouled Howard down the stretch. The career 57.4 percent free-throw shooter ended the game 9-of-17 from the foul line, many of those misses coming in crunch time and allowing Portland to get its foot back into the door of a game that seemed all but over just minutes prior.
And who could forget the officiating on Sunday night? Several calls -- all game-long -- seemed questionable at best, both teams affected by some bizarre whistles. Aldridge, Howard, Blazers center Robin Lopez and Rockets guard Patrick Beverley all fouled-out by the end of the contest, with three technical fouls and a flagrant-1 being assessed before the curtain closed on the night. The first half of the game, Portland led Houston in free-throw attempts, 17-0. The Rockets had 40 free-throws in the second half and overtime, while the Blazers took 22. It was a strange, inconsistently officiated game from front-to-back, prompting the NBA to declare Howard's sixth foul a blown call.
That said, it's time to look forward to Game 2. What's likely to change tonight? For starters, a 17-for-49 combined performance from the field for Harden and Howard isn't likely to repeat. Portland guard Wesley Matthews did his best to make Harden expend energy on defense, taking him to the post early to some degree of success. This no doubt affected Harden, but truth be told, he missed a lot of attempts he'd normally make. Don't expect him to miss 20 shots again tonight, as he's a 42.5 percent shooter from the field and has hit 34.6 percent of his three-pointers in five NBA postseasons.
Howard and his teammates would like to establish him in the post more often tonight, as he has historically been able to score consistently in 1-on-1 situations against Lopez. On Sunday night, Howard missed a lot of shots down low that would regularly go in for him. Like Harden, he shot well below his career playoff averages. He's played in seven NBA postseasons, making almost 60 percent of his shots. Don't be surprised to see Rockets coach Kevin McHale go to Howard in the post early and often, trying to get Portland's thin frontcourt in foul trouble, simultaneously forcing them to expend energy on the defensive end.
Aldridge lit up the single-coverage that McHale threw at him all game, a mystifying coaching mistake that probably won't be made again consistently tonight. Rockets forward Terrence Jones had no chance slowing the three-time All-Star down, and the help defense was often nowhere to be found. Houston center Omer Asik had some degree of success bodying up Aldridge, but only played 12 minutes as he got into foul trouble. Expect to see more of him tonight.
McHale will be looking to vary the coverage on Aldridge, possibly having Jones front him while Howard helps out from behind. This would likely prevent Aldridge from establishing post position so easily, pushing him further from the basket. There are a couple ways Portland can get around this, the first of which relies on Aldridge hitting his mid-range jumpers. Though he did hit a couple threes, Aldridge missed 9-of-12 from the mid-range Sunday night, a shot he's not afraid to take and the preferred attempt for Houston.
If the jumpers aren't falling for Aldridge, he'll have to rely more heavily tonight on his teammates. If the Rockets put Howard or Asik on him straight up, that leaves Lopez with Jones guarding him. Lopez should do well with the ball against a much smaller Jones, likely working effectively in pick-and-roll situations as he's done all season-long.
Lillard was thrown off at times by Beverley's vaunted perimeter defense Sunday night, but was able to get points at the free-throw line and feasted on Houston's otherwise underwhelming perimeter defenders. With Aldridge likely drawing either Howard or Asik outside of the paint to defend against jumpers, Lillard should continue working his way into the middle, which will probably be a little less crowded tonight.
Portland coach Terry Stotts went with a tight, eight-man rotation that only saw center Joel Freeland enter the game due to foul trouble for Lopez and Aldridge.
Matthews had some success early in the post against Harden, but eventually forced a few shots in a 6-for-16 performance from the floor, including a 1-of-7 outing from beyond the arc. Against a defender like Harden who is known to take plays off defensively, Matthews needs to hit those open looks and continue making him exert energy on the defensive end, which looked to be a factor Sunday night.
Blazers forward Nicolas Batum had a solid statistical night, ending up 6-for-10 with 19 points, nine boards and three assists. He didn't seem to ratchet up the intensity on either end of the floor until the third quarter, though, scoring 10 of his points after the first half. With increased attention likely on Aldridge and Lillard tonight, Batum will have to be ready to hit kick-outs on a collapsing defense and execute his patented pick-and-roll with Lopez, especially if McHale sends his centers out on Aldridge, creating a mismatch for Lopez who will be guarded by Jones in that scenario. Batum also needs to do a better job of corralling Rockets forward Chandler Parsons when guarding him, who was 10-for-21 Sunday night but missed several open three-pointers in a 3-for-11 performance from outside. Parsons won't miss those shots on a nightly basis in this series, so consistently getting a hand in his face tonight is imperative for Batum and whichever defender is on him.
Portland guard Mo Williams, along with forward Dorell Wright and Thomas Robinson, were all but invisible in Game 1 off the bench, ending the contest a collective 2-for-13 from the floor. The Blazers won't get 115 point from their starters every night -- especially with the defensive attention that will likely be thrown at Lillard and Aldridge from here on out -- so it's up to these bench players to contribute more offensively for the remainder of the series. Williams will mostly see defensive coverage from Harden or Rockets guard Jeremy Lin, both poor perimeter defenders. With his ability to attack the hoop, Williams should be able to make more happen tonight, finding open teammates if his shots aren't falling.
Wright should see some open looks when playing the power forward spot in small-ball lineups, and the Rockets would struggle against his floor-spacing ability if he's covered by Jones and hitting his shots. Robinson is unpredictable from game-to-game, though considering his rebounding ability -- particularly on the offensive end -- he needs to either create for himself or his teammates a bit more tonight with his energy and hustle.
Houston saw a solid performance from Lin off the bench in Game 1, a trend to keep an eye on as this series progresses. Lillard and Williams do not defend well on the perimeter, and Lin took full advantage of that late in the game Sunday night as he drove to the hole rather unimpeded time-after-time. With so much defensive attention likely going to Harden and Howard tonight, the Blazers will have to do a better job of contesting Lin's shots. This also goes for Beverley, who wasn't particularly aggressive in Game 1, missing three of his four outside shots. If either of these two backcourt players and/or Parsons is hitting outside shots tonight at their normal rates, things could get very difficult for Portland's defense.
Rebounding could swing the momentum in either team's favor, as both the Rockets and Blazers picked up 37 defensive boards in the first game of the series, with Houston outdoing Portland on the other end, 22 to 17. Those offensive rebounds extended possessions for both teams, allowing plenty of extra opportunities for second-chance points. Rebounding their own misses is a huge part of the Blazers' game and can be expected, but allowing 22 offensive rebounds to the Rockets -- double their regular-season average -- would normally break Portland's back. Expect a lot more emphasis from both teams tonight on the defensive glass.
This series looks to be a chess match between both coaches and their teams, each making adjustments to exploit certain matchups while masking deficiencies. Howard and Asik can guard Aldridge straight up, but in doing so they both get pulled away from the hoop, allowing a clearer path to the basket for Lopez and the Blazers' backcourt. Howard can establish offensive position against any defender Stotts throws at him, but his possessions often chew up the clock and keep the ball out of Harden's hands.
What will likely win Game 2 -- and ultimately the series -- is coaching from the bench and execution on the floor, particularly late in the game. Portland came out on top in Game 1 following the early success of posting Matthews on Harden and the late-game success of the "Hack-A-Howard" strategy, while Houston's execution down the stretch was questionable at times as Harden launched several ill-advised shots.
Of course, the stars also have to come ready to play, and the Blazers' All-Star duo of Aldridge and Lillard outperformed Harden and Howard in a big way on Sunday night, which will be a tough trend to continue over the course of a seven-game series. With all eyes on these four superstars, watch for secondary players like Matthews, Batum, Lopez, Parsons, Beverley and Lin to fill in the gaps. Whichever team gets a bigger hand from its supporting cast tonight will have a huge advantage and a much clearer path toward a victory.
-- Chris Lucia | email@example.com | Twitter