The Blazers host the Houston Rockets tonight in Game 3 of their first-round playoff matchup after a win in Game 2 put them up 2-0 in the series.
Portland forward LaMarcus Aldridge once again put the team on his back, following a 46-point Game 1 performance with 43 points on 18-for-28 shooting Wednesday night. The Rockets threw the kitchen sink at Aldridge to slow him down, but were instead met with a flurry of his patented mid-range jumpers, many of them with a hand in his face. According to NBA.com's SportVU advanced stats, Aldridge went 6-for-7 while guarded by Houston center Dwight Howard, 5-for-6 against forward Terrence Jones and 6-for-14 when matched up with center Omer Asik.
You might ask, "If Aldridge shot significantly worse against Asik than when guarded by either Howard or Jones, why didn't Rockets coach Kevin McHale body him up with Asik all game?"
A valid question, and one that likely defies any sort of reasonable explanation. Sure, Asik picked up five fouls in 12 minutes of playing time in Game 1. But what about Wednesday night, when he played 24 minutes and picked up just 3 fouls? Red94.net's Rahat Huq, frustrated with the Rockets' lack of adjustments, openly questioned McHale's decision-making in a piece yesterday:
If you're a fan of the Houston Rockets, you're wondering what an ‘adjustment' is. My apologies. Allow me to explain as simply as possible. An ‘adjustment' is basically when, in a game, something is happening over and over again, perhaps by one of the teams, and then the other team's coach says, "hey guys, we need to make an adjustment. let's stop doing ‘x' and do ‘y'." And then typically, some different result ensues. I've poured over the past two years worth of video from the Houston Rockets to find some tape to better illustrate the concept, but unfortunately, did not find anything.
More frustrating for Houston fans, perhaps, was a disjointed offensive performance by the Rockets that left many scratching their heads. Howard opened the game with a dominant first half, feasting on Blazers center Robin Lopez in single-coverage and putting in 25 points, many of them on dunks. After half-time -- and with Portland coach Terry Stotts opting to guard Howard more often with Aldridge -- the superstar center largely went quiet, registering just seven more points.
Houston runs a fast-paced, mostly free-wheeling offense that is predicated on drives to the rim and the subsequent open three-pointers they provide and/or free-throws. With Howard dominating the ball early, the Rockets were taken right out of their game, having no response for when the shots didn't fall. Portland, on the other hand, took exactly what the defense gave it, which ended with a barrage of Aldridge jumpers and a halftime tie that left many Blazers fans feeling as if they took the best Howard could dish out with their team still standing, a moral victory of sorts that may have taken some of the air out of Houston's sails. Portland cruised to a 7-point victory as Aldridge continued sinking his jumpers all night.
Expect the Rockets to come out with a different strategy this game. Though Howard had no trouble with Lopez, a couple issues arose as McHale continued forcing the ball down low: Howard's post-ups put a halt to Houston's normally fast-paced offense and the All-Star center got much more tired than usual, much more quickly. It also prevented Rockets guard James Harden -- who requires a lot touches and attempts to be most effective -- from getting into any kind of offensive rhythm, and it showed as he finished the game with just 18 points on 6-of-19 shooting.
Harden has to get it going offensively for Houston to have any chance of getting back into this series. As the ball-dominant lynchpin of the Rockets' offense, his ability to penetrate and finish or draw fouls keeps defenders on their toes and manufactures quick, easy points for his team. Harden's outside shot and ability to find open teammates against a collapsing defense makes him an almost unstoppable player when he's in a groove. Portland guard Wesley Matthews -- the man tasked with guarding Harden for most of the first two games this series -- has done his best to body him up and make his job with the ball difficult, but he couldn't take all the credit for slowing down Harden, telling the Houston Chronicle that they made an effort to prevent him from driving, but that he's also probably missing plenty of shots on his own.
In the same article, McHale promised to push the pace and attack more often, so don't be surprised to see a much more aggressive Harden tonight when he has the ball. The same goes for Houston guards Patrick Beverley and Jeremy Lin, both showing in flashes the first two games the damage they can deal to Portland's perimeter defense, though coming in inconsistent efforts.
Rockets forward Chandler Parsons thrives in fast break situations, able to hit open threes and finish at the rim in transition. In Wednesday's game, he ended the night 5-for-15 with 15 points. Forward Terrence Jones, an athletic power forward, ended with 13 points on 5-for-11 shooting from the field. Both players need to see a faster pace tonight if McHale expects to get their best contributions.
In short, Houston's offense doesn't pack enough creative punch to keep up with an offense like Portland's when they're not pushing the pace and putting opponents on their heels. That said, the Blazers' transition defense is going to be huge tonight as the Rockets will come out with their backs against the wall, trying to regain some of their regular season scoring magic that made them one of the most efficient offenses in the NBA.
Aldridge torched Houston by going inside Game 1, attempting only 12 mid-range jumpers. On Wednesday night, he displayed his versatility by shooting mostly jumpshots, many of them going through with a hand in his face. Tonight, expect Stotts and Aldridge to again take what is given to them by the Rockets' defense; in single-coverage against Asik, expect him to be drug out into the mid-range. Howard can also be shot over. If the double is brought, Aldridge has plenty of perimeter shooters to pass the ball to. A Houston defense that features Harden, Parsons and Lin -- all players who struggle on that end of the court -- to go with a hobbled Beverley, doesn't stand a chance against Portland's offense when the ball is moving and perimeter players are hitting their outside shots.
Of course, even with good double-recognition by Aldridge and solid ball movement, the Blazers' wings still have to hit their outside shots tonight. Matthews, forward Nicolas Batum, guard Damian Lillard and sixth-man Mo Williams haven't had consistent efforts from deep in consecutive games so far this series. Along with forward Dorell Wright -- who showed up in a big way in the second half of Game 2 with 15 points on 3-for-4 shooting from deep -- some combination of Portland perimeter players will have to hit long-range shots consistently to take advantage of a Rockets defense that will allow some open shots.
If Aldridge doesn't have a third-straight historic scoring night, Lillard will also have to step up offensively. In Game 2, he found a way to contribute with his passing (11 assists) and rebounding (8 boards), and in both the first two games of this series he's made his way to the line 12 times. Shooting just 36.4 percent in the first two games combined, though, Lillard needs to continue attacking Beverley. At the very worst -- as we saw Sunday and Wednesday -- an aggressive Lillard draws fouls and can collapse a defense, leaving shooters open in the mid-range and beyond.
Williams came in the game Wednesday night and slowed down Portland's offense, turning the ball over, dribbling a bit too much and forcing a few bad shots. He redeemed himself in the second half by pouring in 13 points, but a veteran of his stature should have a more steadying presence off the bench earlier on. As mentioned before, Wright was a huge spark off the bench in the third quarter. Lopez, who seemed a bit timid at times against Howard, should find plenty of opportunities to score tonight as Aldridge will likely draw much of Houston's defensive attention. Stotts might consider going back to the Matthews post-up against Harden occasionally, forcing him to play defense and possibly tiring the superstar shooting guard who is bound to come uncorked offensively sooner or later as this series progresses. Making Harden work on the defensive end will be huge, as he's been known to take plays off, likely preserving energy for when he has the ball in his hands.
The Blazers gang-rebounded the ball effectively in Game 2, "limiting" the Rockets to 14 offensive boards after giving up 22 on Sunday night. A similar effort needs to be made tonight, as Houston crashes both ends of the boards hard. If Aldridge is guarded by Asik the majority of the game -- the wisest move McHale could probably make at this point -- he'll be outside of the paint on the offensive side of the ball. Lopez and the rest of Portland's frontcourt will need to crash the glass offensively, but they'll also need to be careful, watching Houston in transition as they will no doubt attempt to push the ball much more tonight.
Look for a much more aggressive Rockets team in Game 3, as they often took themselves out of their own game Wednesday night by not always pushing the tempo and relying on Howard for much of their offense. As effective as the eight-time All-star center is down low, Portland will settle for a halfcourt Houston offense that stalls when the first option is taken away. Expect more offense tonight, likely from beyond the arc.
If Aldridge keeps the pace he's had so far this series, the Rockets are probably toast. If not, keep in mind the Blazers still haven't truly come alive from behind the three-point line this series and Lillard hasn't had a good shooting night so far, either. Though Portland still needs two more wins to secure a second-round advancement, a Game 3 win at home would have Houston reeling with the Blazers clearly in the driver's seat.
-- Chris Lucia | firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter