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Portland Trail Blazers vs. Houston Rockets Preview

The Blazers complete a quick, back-to-back set of Texas road games this afternoon against the Houston Rockets following last night's overtime loss in Dallas.

Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Portland Trail Blazers (34-17, No. 4 in the West) vs. Houston Rockets (35-15, No. 3 in the West)
Sunday, February 8
Toyota Center; Houston, TX | 4:00 p.m. PST | Local TV/Radio: CSNNWHD; 620 AM
Out for the Blazers: Joel Freeland | Out for the Rockets: Dwight Howard
SBN Affiliate: The Dreamshake Timmay's Viewing Guide | Blazer's Edge Night

The Blazers complete a quick, back-to-back set of games today against the Houston Rockets following last night's overtime loss to the Mavericks.

Houston will be without center Dwight Howard tonight. His knee has been acting up lately, forcing him to the sidelines for at least a few more weeks.

In Howard's absence, the Rockets are somewhat small up front. Power forward Joey Dorsey has been starting in the middle, while Houston coach Kevin McHale employs a frontcourt platoon of Terrence Jones, Donatas Motiejunas and Josh Smith.

If you thought their defense would take a nosedive with Howard out, consider that the Rockets have won two in a row and six of their last seven, with quality wins over the Mavs, Bulls and Bucks in that span. Yes, Houston gives up a lot of scores inside -- Milwaukee went for 60 points in the paint Friday night -- but the defense is opportunistic, poking balls away, creating steals and using those turnovers to generate tons of fastbreak points in one of the league's fastest-paced offenses.

The engine that drives Houston's offense is All-Star guard James Harden, who is considered by many to be among the current front-runners for the league's MVP award after winning Western Conference Player of the Month honors for both December and January.

Harden is one of the most difficult players for opposing defenses to slow down -- he dropped 44 points on Portland in a 110-95 victory back in December -- and he's been plowing through teams lately as Houston's main point of attack.

Memphis Grizzlies wing Tony Allen -- widely considered one of the league's premier perimeter defenders -- had this to say to Bleacher Report's Jared Zwerling when asked about trying to contain Harden when he has the ball in his hands:

"...One guy I haven't figured all the way out yet is James Harden. He's pretty crafty. I'm not impressed with his ball-handling, but his finishing skills are scary. Even though he's lefty, if he goes right he's going to put the ball out and get the foul. It's kind of tough because you don't want to get a foul called. And once you get your first or second foul, you kind of ease up."

Harden can get to the hoop and finish with either hand and, as most Blazers fan will bemoan, draw free throws with a combination of strength, footwork and unashamed theatrics in order to garner the attention of the referees.

Yes, Harden's tactics could be considered bush-league -- no one likes to see an offensive game predicated on persuading officials to make calls based on embellished contact -- but he's far from a one-dimensional player. Though his midrange jumper hasn't fallen with regularity lately, it's a shot Harden likes and one that he should be able to find open, for the most part, against Portland's defense. Also consider that he's hit 44 percent of his threes the last five games, almost half of them off the dribble.

Following a 117-111 loss Friday night to the Rockets in which Harden scored 33 points and went to the line 17 times, Bucks coach Jason Kidd had this to say about Houston's MVP candidate to

"We did everything we could. We threw multiple bodies at [Harden] and gave him different looks. He's just patient, and he can do it all. ... He's one of the best players in the world."

Now, the Blazers aren't likely to double-team Harden. Guard Wesley Matthews -- who held him to 37.6 percent shooting from the floor and 29.6 percent shooting from downtown in the first round of the playoffs last spring -- will get the assignment for much of the night. Harden shot 14-for-26 from the field and 12-for-13 from the foul line the last time these two teams met, so Matthews' results against him have been mixed over the last several matchups.

Harden isn't just a scorer, either; Using his ability to penetrate, he's able to kick the ball out to open teammates once the opposing defense collapses on him, which has earned him 6.6 assists per game the last five.

Motiejunas has beasted in place of Howard down low, cashing in on 58.8 percent of his shots. The third-year big man can step out and stick the three, but is most potent right near the rim, where he's made 89.5 percent of his shots the last several games. The Blazers will have to make an effort at preventing Motiejunas from catching the ball and establishing position down low, because he's been destroying teams in the middle lately.

Forward Trevor Ariza is a great catch-and-shoot player, especially from the perimeter. Over the last five games, he's attempted seven three-pointers a night and converted 45.7 percent of them, all assisted. Point guard Patrick Beverley and Dorsey are almost afterthoughts in Houston's starting offense. When Beverley has tried to score lately, it's been difficult for him, as he's made just 18.2 percent of his threes the last couple weeks and under a third of all his field goals.

The Rockets boast one of the league's most effective and efficient bench units right now. McHale plays a nine-man rotation, working in wings Corey Brewer and Jason Terry, along with Smith and Jones up front. Though Smith took plenty of time integrating himself into the Rockets' offense, he's now firmly established as the team's energy guy off the bench, creating turnovers with his defense and setting up scoring opportunities for others in transition. Brewer, long known as one of the NBA's best leak-out scorers, has made up a quarter of his offense from fastbreaks the last five games. Though he's struggled to finish at the rim recently, Brewer is still a threat to get out on the run and push the tempo. Terry and Jones have also been slightly underwhelming the last several games offensively but still complement Brewer and Smith's scoring off the bench.

The Blazers played three excellent quarters last night in Dallas before squandering a 13-point lead going into the fourth period and eventually losing in overtime, 111-101. Through the first three-and-a-half quarters, Portland moved the ball well and struck from outside while the Mavs launched brick after brick, many of them open.

Dallas forwards Dirk Nowitzki and Chandler Parsons eventually got their individual offense going toward the end of the game -- right as the Blazers cooled down -- and the Mavs rode their momentum into overtime and easily dispatched Portland in the extra frame.

The Blazers struggled with turnovers all night against Dallas, particularly late, and they'll have to keep a lid on those giveaways against Houston, a team that can and will take advantage of Portland's miscues.

Point guard Damian Lillard awoke from a three-point shooting slumber that had been plaguing him for games, connecting on four of his 10 three-point attempts. Unfortunately, those four makes were in the first three quarters, and he ran out of gas down the stretch. Lillard scored 26 points on the night, adding seven rebounds and seven assists, but of particular note was his defense. He was all kinds of pesky against Dallas' backcourt, poking the ball away for four steals and generally harassing guards J.J. Barea and Monta Ellis, who combined to shoot 11-for-36.

Lillard's five turnovers were a blemish on an otherwise solid outing, but you have to give him credit for his efforts defensively. When the Blazers started switching on perimeter screens toward the end of the game, Lillard ended up on Nowitzki for several possessions, which Mavs coach Rick Carlisle exploited a number of times. Still, Lillard held his ground as much as you could expect from a 6-foot-3 guard marooned at the top of the key against one of the greatest perimeter shooting 7-footers of all-time.

Forward LaMarcus Aldridge didn't disappoint against Dallas, hitting his midrange jumper for most of the night and finishing 11-for-22 with 25 points and 14 rebounds. The Rockets prefer to force opposing offenses into long jumpshots, which is right in Aldridge's wheelhouse. Motiejunas, Dorsey, Jones and Smith should all get turns against Portland's four-time All-Star power forward, and McHale may throw in some doubles against him, as well, understanding fully the destruction Aldridge can do against single-coverage in the frontcourt.

Blazers forward Nicolas Batum and center Robin Lopez will likely benefit from any extra defensive attention Aldridge receives tonight, as he's pretty good at recognizing double-teams and passing out of them to open teammates. Batum missed all eight of his shots against the Mavs last night, but picked up 10 rebounds and four assists. Brewer isn't a bruising defender, but Ariza has a solid reputation on that end of the floor and could help make Batum's night more difficult. He'll need to hit his open threes when his defender sags off to help on either Aldridge or Lillard.

Lopez hit 5-of-8 shots against Dallas but was in foul trouble for much of the night, limiting his effectiveness defensively down the stretch. Because McHale may be throwing extra frontcourt help at Aldridge, Lopez should be ready to finish with the ball when it gets to him, as he'll likely be matched up against a smaller defender.

Guard Wesley Matthews showed a couple skills last night that should be encouraging for Blazers fans. When posting up against smaller defenders, he was able to draw in a bit of extra attention and kick the ball out to an open teammate. This helps keep the defense honest, knowing they'll either have to live with Matthews posting up in isolation -- where he's fairly effective in single-coverage -- or send extra help, risking a kickout that could lead to an open shot around the perimeter.

Matthews doesn't post up a ton, but it's certainly nice to have it as an option offensively. He also looks as comfortable as ever shooting from beyond the arc with little space, his release looking quick and strong, even with a defender flying out to get a hand in his face. The Rockets contest three-pointers pretty well, so Matthews' ability to shoot from outside under pressure could be huge tonight.

Stotts' bench looked solid for much of the game against the Mavs, but the wheels fell off early in the fourth quarter and the reserves were mostly shelved for the duration of the contest. Centers Meyers Leonard and Chris Kaman, along with guards Steve Blake and CJ McCollum have made up the majority of Stotts' reserve rotation the last few games while forwards Dorell Wright, Thomas Robinson and wings Allen Crabbe and Will Barton haven't been used much.

Leonard had a nice three and a finish in transition last night, but a few late turnovers kept him glued to the bench toward the end of the game. McCollum had a couple solid threes and got to the line, Kaman had a few nice scores but generally looked over-extended and Blake went back to the role of distributor, netting seven assists. Wright and Robinson may get some court time from Stotts tonight, considering the energy and length both Smith and Brewer play with.

The Rockets are generally a bad rebounding team on both sides of the ball, relying heavily on Smith and Motiejunas, both very capable offensive rebounders. The Blazers should again look for offensive rebounds for second-chance scoring opportunities, which they did pretty well last night when they pulled in 17 offensive rebounds. Against Houston's center-less rotation, Portland should be able to put in another solid effort on the glass.

Only tonight's game and a home meeting with the lowly Lakers on Wednesday stand between the Blazers and an eight-day rest during the All-Star break. If Portland can match the Rockets' effort tonight -- which means good ball movement, recognition of defensive coverages and appropriate reactions offensively, paired with a commitment to keeping the perimeter sealed on defense -- the Blazers could steal one in Houston with Howard watching in street-clothes.

Harden should get his looks and will almost certainly draw plenty of phantom shooting fouls that will have Blazers fans screaming at their televisions. You can be sure of that. It's up to Portland's defense to keep Motiejunas, Ariza and the Rockets' recently upgraded bench unit -- that now features Brewer and Smith -- under wraps. Of course, the Blazers need to hit shots of their own, too, and keep the pace up to match Houston's energy.

-- Chris Lucia | | Twitter

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