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Portland Trailblazers vs. Houston Rockets Preview

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The Trail Blazers look to let it fly against a Houston Rockets team that is having some major issues.

Craig Mitchelldyer-USA TODAY Sports

Portland Trail Blazers (4-8) vs Houston Rockets (4-7)
Wednesday, November 18

Toyota Center | 5:00 p.m. PST | Local TV/Radio: CSNNW; 620 AM

Portland injury report
: Meyers Leonard (Out), Damian Lillard (Thumb, Playing) | Houston injury report: Patrick Beverly (Out), Donatas Motiejunas(Out)
SBN Affiliate:
The Dream Shake | Blazer's Edge Night 2016

Update: The Houston Rockets have fired head coach Kevin McHale prior to Wednesday's game against the Portland Trail Blazers.

The Blazers have now lost six games in a row, including the first three on this road trip. However, somehow it seems that the Rockets team they are facing is in far worse shape after dropping four in a row.

How bad has it gotten for Houston, just a season removed from the Western Conference Finals? Although it is old news to the rest of the world, the great SB Nation Rockets blog The Dream Shake recently ran the headline "Why Watching James Harden and These Rockets Is Unbearable."

(I kid because I care. This team is way too talented to play this badly.)

What’s wrong? According to commenter Chris D Harris from The Dream Shake:

right now there are multiple issues that include (but aren’t limited to):

1) harden

2) unfamiliarity

3) Brewer

4) rotations

5) stagnation on offense

6) a lack of consistency in defensive fundamentals

7) lack of hustle in the boards

8) lack of practice time

9) health

10) Lawson

Etc

Personally I like the fact that a laundry list like this was prefaced by "issues that include (but aren’t limited to)" and maybe moreso the "Etc" at the end. Not because I’m reveling in anyone else’s pain or anything. But the ugliness has indeed reached comical proportions. It’s either laugh or cry if you’re a denizen of "Clutch City" right now.

The aforementioned losing streak has come against the Nets, Nuggets, Mavericks, and Celtics, with three of those games being played at home. Five of their seven early-season losses have come by margins of 20, 20, 20, 18, and 16. They are now getting booed at home regularly by a usually highly-supportive fan base.

They probably deserve those boos. Even just watching a few "highlights" will show insultingly poor effort and execution on defense. James Harden in particular seems to be regressing once again on the defensive side of the ball, getting beaten regularly on simple back-door plays.

For those of you aware of international soccer, each recent Rocket game at some point seems to turn into the infamous 2014 Germany / Brazil World Cup semifinal, in which Germany scored four goals in six minutes en route to a 7-1 victory. Not just for the result, but for the commitment of the Brazilian players, the game is known as a national embarrassment. Well, if Texas ever does secede from the union, it will have this several-week span where they can point to multiple such national embarrassments. When the "give up" sets in for the Rockets, it has set in hard, and is distinctly visceral for a viewing audience.

Nobody can shoot right now. Daryl Morey’s metric-based approach can’t work for a team who is No. 29 in the league in three-point shooting (29 percent). Harden is averaging 27.3 points a game, but that figure is buoyed by 11.2 free throws per contest, as he is shooting 37.2 percent from the field and 26.2 percent from deep. Ty Lawson (8.9 points, 5.6 assists, 33.3 percent FG, 27.3 percent 3PT) has been a major disappointment, and has struggled to mesh with Harden. Lawson did just call a players-only meeting on Tuesday, so we'll see if he has an impact off the court. Role players Trevor Ariza (33.6 percent FG, 31.5 percent 3PT) and Corey Brewer (29.9 percent FG, 13 percent 3PT) have struggled mightily with the ball in their hands. Well, most of the team has, really, as they sit at No. 25 in the league in turnovers (16.6 per game).

As dark as the universe may seem right now, the Rockets are not completely lost. Dwight Howard has played well (15.0 PPG, 12.6 REB, 62.9 percent FG), but has already missed four games due to health precautions. Terrence Jones also has put up numbers despite missing time for injury (13.3 PPG, 5.8 REB), and Marcus Thornton has been a nice surprise off the bench (13.1 PPG). So the frontcourt looks pretty darn formidable when they’re all in uniform.

The injury bug has been a problem early on, and Patrick Beverly and Donatas Motiejunas are currently both out indefinitely. If things don’t turn around sooner than later, coach Kevin McHale may join them on the shelf.

The team he is working with isn’t much different from last year’s unit. Yet if the players continue to fail to answer the bell, you can bet some changes will follow.

What the Blazers need to do to win:

Hit the glass with your athletes to limit the damage by Howard: Dwight Howard is a matchup nightmare for any team. But the Blazers can claim the most athletic bigs they’ve had in a while, and that could allow new ways to discomfort and harry him, especially on the boards. There will be no stopping him once the ball is in his hands; yet if you can hem up his second-chance opportunities, which have made Howard a huge difference-maker in recent years against Portland, and maybe even grab a few O-rebounds of your own, it could be a game-changer. There’s also the ‘hack-a-Dwight’ and ‘go at him to draw fouls’ approaches in case the straight-up approach fails, but it will be interesting to see how Portland fares against D12 this go-round, especially since Portland’s schemes have held him to his second-lowest net rating against any team over his career.

Let Harden fire away from outside: Harden leads the Association in Points Off of Drives Per Game (9.2), and we all know his proficiency at collecting fouls by any means necessary. Part and parcel to packing the paint against Howard could be not killing yourself to get out above the key to get to Harden on kickouts and instead keeping the middle jammed against would-be drives. I would worry more about covering the corners and keeping the secondary scorers from popping off.

Hit some shots and end droughts quickly: Well, wouldn’t that would be nice. Portland was within three of the Spurs with just under three minutes to play on Monday despite scoring only 28 points in the first half, but wouldn’t score again. They were sub-40 percent from the field against Charlotte the game before, and were down by 26 at the half. Damian Lillard can’t really feel his right thumb due to treatment on his torn fingernail, which may explain his 2-for-18 shooting from 3-point range since the injury. But these kinds of droughts are an invitation for a troubled-but-talented team to get on a roll at home.

Keep coming: Say what you will about this edition of the Blazers, but there is no quit in them. This could bode well against a team that has been easily dispirited so far this season. The Rockets have lately routinely been beaten on fast-break points, second chance points, and points in the paint—basically hustle points. If the Rockets continue to give these away…hey, free points.

Outlook

The Blazers have played tough and close against a couple of veteran teams on this road trip so far, and for once in a couple of years they have a better than even chance of winning in Houston if they do just that. You’d have to imagine that the Rockets, who came into the season with high hopes, will come out with some sense of pride or desperation at the start. Whether they can maintain intensity, focus, and a consistently high level of execution remains extremely debatable, and leaves the door open for a morale-boosting win for this young Portland squad.