The Blazers return to the Moda Center tonight for Game 4 of their first-round playoff matchup with the Houston Rockets, following a Game 3 loss Friday night that left Portland ahead in the series, 2-1.
The Rockets -- and in particular, coach Kevin McHale -- received ample criticism from fans and media alike after Blazers forward LaMarcus Aldridge averaged 44.5 points the first two games of the series on over 59 percent shooting.
Citing the effectiveness of Houston center Omer Asik's defense against Aldridge, pundits were puzzled when he only played 36 minutes total in Games 1 and 2. McHale responded by shifting his starting lineup, sending forward Terrence Jones -- who's shot the ball and rebounded fairly well this series but has struggled to put the clamps on Aldridge defensively -- to the bench in favor of starting Asik next to center Dwight Howard in the frontcourt. Aldridge was caught off guard by the adjustment, also struggling when McHale often opted to send Howard to double him as the three-time All-Star power forward tried to go baseline. Aldridge finished with 23 points on 8-of-22 shooting for the night, easily the most bothered he's looked offensively so far this postseason.
With Portland's most potent scoring weapon throughout the series mostly bottled up in Game 3, guard Damian Lillard and forward Nicolas Batum picked up some of the slack on offense. Lillard finished with 30 points on 9-of-16 shooting, making four of his eight three-point attempts while racking up six assists and six rebounds. An aggressive Batum attempted 20 shots, making nine of them -- including a 4-for-9 performance from deep -- while registering 26 points.
Guard Mo Williams came off the bench, starting his night out a little shaky but ultimately finishing with 17 points, a huge spark for the Blazers late in the game as they mounted a comeback to force overtime after falling behind by double-digits early in the fourth quarter. Guard Wesley Matthews -- shooting just 35.3 percent from the field this postseason and 17.6 percent from outside -- again struggled, making just one of his five three-point attempts and finishing with five points.
The silver-lining, though, is that Portland proved it has plenty of options on offense to keep up with the high-scoring Rockets, even when Aldridge struggles from the field amid extra attention from the defense.
The Blazers' offense wasn't their main problem Friday night, but rather the other side of the ball. Matthews and Batum combined to play stout perimeter defense once again, forcing Houston guard James Harden into 22 misses on 35 shots and a 3-for-11 outing from deep. Sure, he scored 37 points, but it took him three-dozen shots to get there.
Rockets forward Chandler Parsons scored 15 on 5-of-12 shooting, but struggled from long-range, making just one three-pointer on four attempts. For the series, Harden is 26.7 percent from deep, Parsons 22.2 percent. Houston, as a whole, is 28 percent from downtown in Games 1, 2 and 3, following a 12-for-31 outside shooting night on Friday. It's hard to ask for much more out of Matthews and Batum on the defensive end, particularly in regards to Harden and Parsons.
Howard continued his offensive dominance in Game 3, scoring 27 points while making 10 of his 16 shots. Shooting over 54 percent from the field this series, Howard's scoring down low continues to go largely unchecked by the Blazers. Portland's best countermove appears to be sticking Aldridge on Howard, which would leave Blazers center Robin Lopez -- who's been outmaneuvered offensively by the much more agile Howard these past three playoff games -- on Asik, mostly a non-factor with the ball.
Houston went stretches of the game employing a small-ball lineup, surrounding Howard with four shooters. In those instances, Portland coach Terry Stotts shifted Aldridge to center and put forward Dorell Wright in at the four-spot. Now that McHale has seen positive results after making the decision to start Asik instead of Jones on Aldridge, he appears likely to stick with the new starting lineup for the foreseeable future. The offensive and defensive chess match between the two coaches continued, both adjusting to each other's advantages in Game 3 for the most part. Expect only minor tweaks in rotations and offensive strategies at this point, as the series now comes down to mainly execution on the players' part.
One glaring area the Blazers need to work on is rebounding, particularly in limiting offensive rebounds -- and in effect, second-chance points -- for the Rockets. Howard has averaged 6 offensive boards in three games so far against Portland in the first round, with Jones, Asik and guard Patrick Beverley all collecting at least three a game on average. The Rockets, as a team, have averaged over 19 offensive rebounds per game this series, a staggering and dangerous number considering the Blazers gave up less than a dozen per game in the regular season.
Houston's also launched 100 shots per contest so far against Portland, almost 10 more than the Blazers have attempted each night. That's a lot of ground to give up to a team with so many capable scorers, and many of those shot attempts for the Rockets have sprung from Portland's inability to limit them on the offensive glass. Lopez has been huge rebounding the ball on his team's end of the floor, averaging 4.3 offensive rebounds a game this postseason, but is having a hard time holding down the fort on the other end. Lagging behind Aldridge and both Lillard and Batum in total defensive rebounds per game this series, Lopez is also fifth on the Blazers in defensive rebounding percentage. More activity on the defensive glass -- not just from Lopez, but from Portland's entire frontcourt -- would put a serious dent in the Rocket's field-goal attempts and second-chance points, helping cut off an important lifeline for them so far this series.
The Blazers did well Friday night in limiting their own turnovers, making their free-throws and pushing the ball, scoring 23 fast break points to Houston's eight. Maintaining that aggressiveness and edge in those areas is key, as the Rockets thrive when scoring easy points in transition and at the free-throw line.
Portland can live with a lot of things that happened Friday night, including 37 points from Harden and 24 from Howard. Even the three-pointer by former D-Leaguer Troy Daniels with 11 second left -- which gave the Rockets the lead for good in overtime -- came on a broken play that could've ended just as easily with a Harden turnover had Houston guard Jeremy Lin been called for a foul after barreling through Williams to recover the loose ball instead of getting a pass off.
Harden told reporters after the game that the pressure was now on Portland -- even though Houston is still down 2-1 in the best-of-seven playoff series with the next game at the Moda Center -- resulting in a collective dismissal from the Blazers yesterday when asked about the quote. On Friday night, the Rockets got 61 combined points from their two All-Stars, had a 22-13 advantage on the offensive boards, a 105-90 upper-hand in field-goals attempted, held Aldridge to below 37 percent from the floor after he dismantled them the first two games and they still needed a 27-foot three-pointer on a poorly executed offensive possession to put the game away in the end.
Don't be surprised to see Portland come out with a similar gameplan to the ones they've employed the first three matchups in this series against the Rockets, with an added emphasis on controlling the defensive glass. If they can execute offensively and defensively like they have the past three games while limiting Houston's second-chance opportunities, a home win tonight and a 3-1 advantage in the series for the Blazers appears pretty realistic.
Expect a continued steady diet of Aldridge shots in Game 4, with Lillard being aggressive both from deep and when driving the ball. Batum's scoring will again be pivotal, and a renaissance from behind the three-point line for Matthews would be a revitalizing shot in the arm for Portland, as his aim from outside has been badly off the first three games of the series.
The pressure tonight rests on the shoulders of Harden -- who's shooting 27-for-82 from the field and 8-for-30 from beyond the arc in Games 1, 2 and 3 combined -- and the rest of his Rockets teammates to even out this first-round series and prevent an elimination game heading back to Houston for Game 5.
-- Chris Lucia | email@example.com | Twitter