Friday, May 2
The Blazers return home tonight to the Moda Center to face the Houston Rockets in Game 6 of their first-round playoff matchup, following a loss in Game 5 that left the series at 3-2 in Portland's favor.
Unlike the previous four games this postseason, Wednesday night's contest never felt particularly close as the Rockets controlled the game from start to finish, including a 17-point lead in the second quarter. The Blazers got within a couple of points of Houston at times throughout the fourth period, but each time they threatened, the Rockets answered and eventually won the game by double digits.
Portland forward LaMarcus Aldridge -- perhaps the series' most valuable player through four games -- was unable to establish a rhythm, scoring just eight points on 3-for-12 shooting. Houston coach Kevin McHale opted to guard Aldridge with center Omer Asik, sending big man Dwight Howard to double instantly as soon as Aldridge attempted to go baseline. After two early fouls that put him out of the game before the midway point of the first quarter, Portland's All-Star forward was never able to establish himself in Game 5 offensively.
Blazers center Robin Lopez came alive on offense, scoring 17 points, though he took 14 shots to get there. Forward Nicolas Batum scored a solid 15 points on 6-for-10 shooting. Guard Wesley Matthews had a massive third quarter -- scoring 18 points to keep his team within striking distance -- and finished the game with 27 points, including a 5-for-9 performance from downtown. Point guard Damian Lillard hit half his 18 shots en route to 28 points.
For the most part, Portland's supporting cast -- at least the starters -- chipped in and was able to partially make up for Aldridge's lack of scoring on Wednesday night. A huge problem for the Blazers, though, was a lack of impact from the bench.
After attempting to get into the head of Rockets rookie Troy Daniels after the Game 4 win by taunting him after the final horn sounded, Portland sixth man Mo Williams hit two of his seven shots in Game 5 and turned the ball over three times, scoring just four points. He also had a rough time defending anyone in Houston's backcourt, often overacting and flopping to gain the benefit of the referees' whistles to no avail, leaving his teammates to cover for him on defense. It would probably benefit Williams and his team if he were to get back to basketball in Game 6, moving past any "mind games" he attempted to derail the Rockets with and just get back to being a scoring punch off the bench. His penetration and shooting helps the Blazers when he's focused and not trying to draw phantom fouls from the officials.
Portland forward Dorell Wright played 11 nondescript minutes, registering just a single point. Forward Thomas Robinson came in off the bench and missed both his shots in nine minutes. Though the Blazers starting lineup has carried the team for much of the regular season, five combined points from the reserves won't cut it on any night, and especially when Aldridge is struggling. Bench scoring will have to improve in Game 6 if Portland wants to close out at home instead of facing Houston at the Toyota Center in a deciding Game 7.
Not a single player for the Rockets had a defining Game 5 offensively. Instead, Houston got 22 points from Howard, 20 from wing Chandler Parsons and 21 from backup point guard Jeremy Lin. All-Star guard James Harden was quiet for much of the game but finished with some timely scoring in the second half, garnering 17 points on 5-of-15 shooting from the field. Asik was an unexpected offensive force, scoring 10 points, mostly on dunks.
The Blazers occasionally sent a double on Howard when he got the ball. This often left shooters on the perimeter open on the kick-out. Fortunately for Portland, the Rockets went 8-for-25 from deep. If the Blazers are going to double Howard when he gets the ball, the defense needs to be able to rotate quickly enough to prevent wide-open shots from outside. Otherwise, they're going to get punished harshly from beyond the arc.
Portland again got destroyed on the boards Wednesday night, losing the battle of the glass 48 to 34 while giving up 14 offensive rebounds and pulling in just nine. The importance of rebounding in this series simply cannot be stressed enough. If the Blazers don't grab some offensive rebounds of their own and prevent Houston from going bananas on their own offensive glass, the rest of this series is going to be an uphill climb. Second-chance points have been a lifeline for the Rockets all series. It's time for Aldridge, Lopez, Robinson & Co. to put in a solid effort on the boards and prevent Houston from extending possessions by grabbing its own offensive rebounds consistently.
At this point in the series, both teams know each other and there are probably no surprises that will surface, only minor adjustments. Aldridge needs to be aware of how McHale is choosing to guard him. If the double-team from Howard is coming, he needs to recognize immediately and kick the ball out. When the Blazers are moving the ball well, they are a team that is hard to stop. Outside of guard Patrick Beverley -- who has been sick/injured the entire series -- not a single perimeter player for the Rockets is particularly heady on defense. With quick ball movement, Portland should be able to capitalize on Houston's double-teaming down low.
The Blazers have a chance tonight to advance to the second-round of the NBA playoffs for the first time since 2000 -- and they have an opportunity to do it tonight in front of the home crowd. A Game 6 loss for Portland would send the series back to Houston with the momentum clearly in the Rockets' favor.
If the Blazers can get more scoring from Aldridge tonight, some offensive punch off the bench from either Williams or Wright and at least be competitive on the glass, they have a good chance to send Houston home early for Summer vacation.
-- Chris Lucia | firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter