Update: The Blazers will be wearing these jersey patches to commemorate Hall of Fame coach Jack Ramsay, who passed away this week at 89 after an extended battle with cancer.
The Blazers return to the Toyota Center tonight to take on the Houston Rockets in Game 5 of their first-round, best-of-seven playoff series. Portland took Game 4 and a 3-1 series lead Sunday night, winning 123-120 in overtime at the Moda Center.
Not many new adjustments were made by Rockets coach Kevin McHale or Blazers coach Terry Stotts last game, and it appears there won't be any jarring surprises in regards to playing rotations and strategies for the duration of the series.
It now comes down to execution on the court, with Houston players staring down an earlier-than-expected start to their summer vacations after falling behind three games to one after four contests with the Blazers so far in the first round of the postseason.
This means Rocket center Omer Asik will continue starting in the frontcourt next to fellow big man Dwight Howard, putting power forward Terrence Jones in a reserve role. McHale thought Jones adapted well to coming off the bench, citing his aggressiveness against Portland's bigs down low.
Houston shooting guard Troy Daniels -- the former D-Leaguer who calmly cashed a late three-pointer to take Game 3 last Friday after receiving two DNP-CDs the first two games of the series -- will likely continue his role off the bench, leaving guard Francisco Garcia out of McHale's eight-man rotation.
Rockets All-Star guard James Harden finally had a decent night shooting from inside the arc on Sunday, hitting nine of his 21 field-goal attempts. Still, he appeared somewhat disengaged at times down the stretch in Game 4, likely due to fatigue and the defense played on him by Blazers guard Wesley Matthews, who also forced him into another poor night shooting from outside as Harden went 3-for-11 from deep. Hitting eight of his own 15 shots, Matthews also forced Harden to work on the defensive end, which is not his strong suit, to put it mildly.
So far this series, Houston's superstar shooting guard has connected on just 35 percent of his field-goals and 26.8 percent of his threes, while attempting fewer than eight free-throws a night after ending the regular season third in the entire NBA in free-throws attempted. Matthews deserves not only a ton of credit for slowing Harden down and making him work for his points, but also for putting in 21 points of his own Sunday night.
Stotts left Portland center Robin Lopez in single-coverage against Howard on Sunday, allowing him 25 points on 7-for-14 shooting and an 11-for-17 performance at the free-throw line. The Blazers can live with that kind of production from Howard, as his offensive game is fairly predictable down low and slows down one of the league's highest-octane offenses. The Blazers have occasionally brought the double on Howard the last couple games this series, but the Rockets shooters -- especially Daniels, who's hit 63.6 percent of his threes in two games -- were able to find wide-open looks on the perimeter when the center kicked the ball out.
Expect to see the double-teams on Howard used only sparingly tonight and for the remainder of the series. Portland forward LaMarcus Aldridge took over against Howard down the stretch last game, as Stotts put to use a smaller lineup with Aldridge in the middle, who has the strength and agility to stay with Houston's dominant big man defensively.
Rockets starting point guard Patrick Beverley again missed practice yesterday with an undisclosed illness. He's sat out practices already this series, but has played in every game so far. Don't think for a second that the tough-minded Beverley -- who's made 39 percent of his shots and a third of his threes the last four contests -- will miss tonight's game if he can help it. He played 37 minutes on Sunday, but allowed Portland point guard Damian Lillard to score 23 points on 6-for-13 shooting from the floor while going 5-for-7 from beyond the arc.
At this point, it might be to the Blazers' benefit to have the ailing Beverley play so many minutes, as Lillard has made 43.5 percent of his field-goals this series and almost half his threes. The problem with cutting Beverley's playing time down, though, is that his backup, guard Jeremy Lin, has struggled from the field all series, making just 36.4 percent of his shots and 16.7 percent of his three-pointers. Lin has also seemed to struggled at the least opportune times for the Rockets, missing multiple crunch-time layups and losing the ball to Portland guard Mo Williams in Game 4 with 28 seconds left and Houston up 104-102, the turnover eventually leading to a Williams three-pointer.
Rockets wing Chandler Parsons had a great first half Sunday night, ending the game with 26 points after making four of his six three-point attempts. The problem with having him on the court, though, is that his defense leaves much to be desired, making for a leaky perimeter defense for Houston with Harden on the other wing. Blazers forward Nicolas Batum found an extra offensive gear Game 4 -- mostly matched up against Parsons -- and was able to pour in 25 points while making 11 of his 23 shots and bringing in six rebounds and six assists.
Aldridge again was met with Asik's single-coverage defense last game, able to score a game-high 29 points on 12-for-23 shooting. No matter what McHale throws at him -- he's tried single-coverage by Jones, Howard and Asik while sprinkling in situational double-teams -- Aldridge has found ways to be effective offensively this series. The three-time All-star power forward also deserves praise for his defense this postseason, as he's bodied up Howard well when facing him and ended the last game with four blocks of his own, a few of them in the fourth quarter and overtime.
Much can also be made of Portland's role players this series, as Williams has shown his trademark up-and-down play early in games but has finished strong down the stretch on multiple occasions. Forward Dorell Wright has regained his shooting stroke after a rough end to his regular season, now hitting 40 percent of his threes in the playoffs. He's also rejected 2.3 shots a game in the first round so far, a huge number for a player who averaged .2 blocks per game this year. Big man Thomas Robinson has been an energetic spark off the bench, limiting his head-scratching plays and playing more to his strengths -- rebounding and scoring second-chance points -- in limited minutes.
The Blazers have given up 18 offensive rebounds per contest on average to the Rockets in four games this postseason. On Sunday night, Portland looked like they might again get handled convincingly on the glass, as they started out the game getting destroyed on the boards and went into halftime down 10 points. A refocused Blazers squad came back in the third quarter and slowed down Houston's effectiveness rebounding the ball, a not-to-be-understated facet of the game that allowed Portland to get back into it. It would be a huge boon for Portland to come out in Game 5 energized on the glass from the very start. Limiting the Rockets' bigs from grabbing rebounds under their own hoop would eat into their second-chance opportunities, cutting off one of their main arteries and preventing them from continually getting easy points early on.
By now in the series, Houston finds itself struggling to gain confidence. The Rockets have seen their best offensive threat, Harden, unable to consistently get it going offensively while getting burned on the defensive end. Howard has bullied his way down low to 27 points a night in four games against the Blazers, but they've largely weathered that storm, too.
Beverley, Houston's heart and soul, isn't up to full-speed physically and is having a hard time corralling Lillard for a full game after bothering him as much as any player in the league had in the regular season. Parsons can't seem to put together more than two good consecutive quarters, let alone an entire contest. Daniels is the only Houston player hitting more than 33.3 percent of his three-pointers this series, but he can't do it alone for the Rockets, and he'll surely have the attention of Portland's defense tonight after ripping the nets from outside in two straight games.
Houston is now relying less on strategizing, game-planning and adjustments, bringing in former Rockets legends Hakeem Olajuwon and Mario Elie into the locker room to provide inspiration and motivation for a team that must be lacking both after falling behind 3-1 in a series it was picked to win handily by many experts.
If the Blazers can string together another solid defensive effort -- this means limiting Harden again and preventing easy threes -- while putting in quality work on the glass, they can end the series tonight and get some much-needed extra rest before the second round starts next week.
Of course, Portland still has to get through a desperate Houston team that's backed into a corner and playing in front of its home crowd. The Rockets could respond with a newfound sense of urgency, not wanting to be bounced in the first round of the playoffs after preseason expectations were sky-high for them following the Howard acquisition last Summer. If the Blazers come out and set the tone early, though, Houston may put its questionable collective mental state (see: late-game execution in Games 1, 2 and 4) on display and shoot itself right out of the game.
If the first four meetings in this series are indicative of how tonight's matchup will play out, expect another long, physical game that goes down to the wire. It's now on Portland to take care of business, with three straight chances -- starting with Game 5 tonight in Houston -- to eliminate the Rockets from the postseason and advance to the second-round of the playoffs for the first time since the Spring of 2000.
-- Chris Lucia | firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter