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Portland Trail Blazers vs. Houston Rockets Preview

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The Blazers host James Harden and the Houston Rockets tonight at the Moda Center.

Steve Dykes/Getty Images

Houston Rockets (43-20, No. 3 in the West) vs. Portland Trail Blazers (41-20, No. 4 in the West)
Wednesday, March 11
Moda Center; Portland, OR | 7:30 p.m. PST | Local TV/Radio: KGWHD, ESPNHD; 620 AM
Out for the Blazers: Wesley Matthews | Out for the Rockets: Dwight Howard, Kostas Papanikolaou (questionable)
SBN Affiliate: The Dream ShakeTimmay's Viewing Guide | Blazer's Edge Night

The Blazers host the Houston Rockets tonight at the Moda Center. Neither team has played since Saturday.

The Rockets return to Portland for the first time since Blazers guard Damian Lillard nailed this series-clinching three-pointer with 0.9 seconds left in Game 6 of their first-round matchup last spring:

Tonight, however, a very different Houston team will be in town. Of the Rockets on the roster for last year's playoffs, only guards James Harden and Patrick Beverley, forwards Terrence Jones and Donatas Motiejunas and center Dwight Howard remain. Howard will miss tonight's contest with a knee injury.

The Rockets have won seven of 10 contests since the All-Star break. One of those three losses, however, came against the Hawks when Harden was suspended for kicking King James in the jewels the game prior against the Cavs. Another loss, which occurred a night later at the hands of Memphis, came down to a blown call by the officials when Harden attempted a layup at the end of the game and was fouled by Grizzlies forward Zach Randolph on the shot attempt. The referees made no call, and Houston lost by two points after Memphis center Marc Gasol sank a jumper at the last second on the other end.

The Rockets have played at the league's highest pace since the All-Star break, according to NBA.com, and are among the league-leaders in points scored and assists per game in that time. Houston's overall shooting from the floor has been mediocre in those 10 games, the three-point shooting has been slightly worse and the team has struggled a bit with turnovers, but the Rockets have played effectively on the defensive end, even with Howard on the shelf.

Houston is still tough on the inside with the improved play of Jones, has defended the perimeter better than any other team in the league the last few weeks and plays passing lanes aggressively. Beverley is a pest defensively, the Rockets rarely foul egregiously and the team's many forced turnovers often lead to transition points for reserves like wing Corey Brewer and guard Jason Terry.

Harden is, however, the most integral piece on the efficiency-driven roster Houston GM Daryl Morey has carefully assembled over the last half-decade. Since the All-Star break, the 2014 All-NBA First Team shooting guard has averaged 25.6 points, 6.7 rebounds and nine assists per game. Harden has struggled a bit hitting his midrange jumpers and shots at the rim -- which account for a third of his attempts -- but he's shot a respectable 36.2 percent from deep on 6.4 tries a night. Turning the ball over 4.4 times a game the last 10 is bit of a black eye on Harden's stats, but he is an incredibly high-usage player and his miscues are more than offset by his offensive production.

And, of course, Harden gets to the line. In fact, he's attempted 11.4 free throws a game since the All-Star break and made 85.8 percent of them. For those keeping track, that's 39.6 percent of his points coming off freebies at the line his last nine games, according to NBA.com.

Harden is a master at selling contact from defenders on his shot attempts, no doubt. To be fair, though, consider that he's also adept at drawing fouls; The majority of calls that Harden gets are legit. You may not like watching his style of play and you may find his antics and demeanor irritating, but he's earning most of his trips to the foul line by drawing actual contact, embellished or otherwise.

And really, Harden deserves to be mentioned in NBA Most Valuable Player discussions too, along with LeBron James, Steph Curry, Russell Westbrook and Anthony Davis.

Howard, the Rockets' defensive anchor down low, has missed half the season. Jones has only played 20 games. Houston fans will get no sympathy from the Blazers faithful in regards to player injuries, but Harden deserves credit for leading his team to a 43-20 record to this point in the season. You don't have to like the guy to admit that.

Aside from The Beard and a few other players, the rest of Houston's rotation has performed fairly up-and-down lately. The aforementioned Jones, who's been shouldering most of the heavy lifting in the frontcourt since Howard's injury, has made 65.8 percent of his attempts at the rim the last 10 games, where the majority of his looks come. He's also been incredibly effective on the offensive glass and draws a decent amount of fouls. Jones' starting frontcourt-mate, Motiejunas, has stepped out to the three-point line for almost three shots a night since the All-Star break, converting 51.9 percent of them. He's had a bad shooting stretch from the rest of the floor in that time, though he poured in 18 points on 6-of-9 shooting Saturday in a win over the Nuggets.

Most of forward Trevor Ariza's shots come from outside, where he's made 32.8 percent of his attempts the last 10 games. He has a decent jumper and can finish inside, but his favorite shots come from either corner. Beverley rounds out the starting lineup. He's shooting 34.9 percent on threes the last few weeks, preferring to attack mostly from the perimeter.

Houston's bench packs plenty of potential scoring punch with Terry, Brewer and forward Josh Smith receiving most of the minutes. Terry functions mostly as an outside shooter, making 34.9 percent of his three-pointers since the All-Star break. Brewer has a reputation for scoring in open space and gets a lot of his points at the basket, though he's put up 3.1 threes a game the last 10 and made just 22.6 percent of them. Smith, criticized the last several years for over-relying on his jumpshot even though he's an efficient interior scorer, gets most of his buckets with Houston in the paint and only drifts out beyond the arc for about a third of his shots. He's still not a consistent outside threat, but the three-pointer is in his arsenal if he's in rhythm.

Big man Joey Dorsey and guard Pablo Prigioni are likely to play spot minutes, barring foul trouble or other unforeseen circumstances. Forward Kostas Papanikolaou may be available for Houston tonight, but he hasn't played in a few weeks and his status is still up in the air.

The Blazers have won six of nine games since the All-Star break, a stretch that includes a five-game winning streak. However, starting shooting guard Wesley Matthews tore his Achilles last Thursday in a win over the Mavericks, ending his season. Portland went on to lose to the last-place Timberwolves on Saturday, 121-113.

The Blazers team that went into Minnesota had won five straight games and had been performing well on both ends of the court, among the top-10 teams in the league in both Offensive and Defensive Rating in that stretch. Portland coach Terry Stotts had a revamped bench, headlined by recently acquired guard Arron Afflalo.

The Matthews injury forced Afflalo into the starting lineup, an appropriate and capable replacement for one of the NBA's best two-way shooting guards. But Stotts has now been tasked with finding a reserve rotation that's seen its main gunner for the last few weeks promoted to the starting unit, and his bench depth is again a bit shallow.

There will likely be an adjustment period for Portland over the next several games, particularly on the defensive end. The Blazers gave up 54.1 percent shooting from the floor, 26 assists and 46 points in the paint to Minnesota on Saturday. Matthews' individual defense was certainly key for the the team, particularly on the perimeter, and Afflalo is reliable enough to cover that role in a serviceable manner. But Matthews also had trust and a long-time familiarity with his fellow starters that had been cultivated for most of the past two-and-a-half seasons. Regardless of Afflalo's individual merits on defense, he can't be expected to step right in and fit seamlessly with his new teammates after playing just seven games in a Portland uniform.

Can the Blazers be expected to get back to defending as effectively as they were post-All-Star break and pre-Matthews injury? Possibly down the road, but not likely in the short term. On the other hand, they can be expected to build upon the debacle against the Timberwolves, as that game feels more like a speedbump in hindsight than a harbinger of things to come for Portland.

Guard Damian Lillard has been sparking the Blazers offensively as forward LaMarcus Aldridge has seen his production dip slightly the last few weeks. Since the All-Star break, Lillard has made 35.8 percent of his threes and 43 percent of his overall field goals. He's gotten to the rim for a third of his shots in that time and has finished well. Lillard's 3.4 turnovers a game in the last eight are a bit of a concern, but that number isn't alarmingly higher than the 2.7 turnovers a game he's averaged for the season.

Aldridge sank 10 of his 20 shots against the 'Wolves for 21 points Saturday, a better shooting effort than he's generally been able to produce lately. In seven games since the All-Star break, Aldridge has averaged 21 points a night but he's required as many shots to get there and can't seem to dial in his jumper from game-to-game even though he's been able to go into the paint for points when necessary. Jones has turned into a consistent shot-blocker recently, improved his strength in the post and shown many signs of improvement on both ends of the floor, but Aldridge has typically dominated one-on-one matchups with the third-year forward from Portland in the past and only he, Motiejunas and the 6-foot-8 Dorsey stand in the way of a big game for the four-time All-Star. Expect another solid output from Aldridge tonight.

Since the extended break last month, forward Nicolas Batum has morphed back into the all-around utility player the Blazers have needed him to be all season. In his last eight games, Batum has averaged 12.9 points, 6.6 rebounds and 5.3 assists while shooting 51.4 percent from the floor and 42.5 percent from deep. He had 17 points on 7-for-12 shooting Saturday.

Afflalo's seen an increase in open three-pointers since being traded to the Blazers last month, and has responded by making 41.7 percent of his outside shots in seven games. If he can continue to hit those open threes and sprinkle in doses of his midrange game and post-up scoring, Afflalo should be able to cover for Matthews offensively, for the most part.

Portland center Robin Lopez had a down night against the 'Wolves, but he's made 53.7 percent of his shots since the All-Star break and like Aldridge, should have an advantage down low tonight, which could lead to some of his trademark opportunistic scoring. Backup center Chris Kaman has essentially replicated Lopez' offensive production off the bench lately, his penchant for turning the ball over notwithstanding. Either way, his scoring off the bench is once again a huge boon for the Blazers.

Guards Steve Blake and CJ McCollum, wing Alonzo Gee, forward Dorell Wright and Kaman make up Stotts' current bench rotation. Center Meyers Leonard and guard Allen Crabbe haven't played much lately. Big man Joel Freeland has also seen limited time since returning from injury a few games ago. McCollum has had a rough go from the field recently but is looking forward to increasing his role again. Wright has been a reliable veteran off the bench, hitting 38.5 percent of his threes since the All-Star break. In limited shots, both Blake and Gee have been efficient scorers lately. Still, the 22 bench points that were put up against Minnesota aren't likely to be sufficient for the Blazers to have a chance at winning many games over this stretch run of the season, especially against high-scoring teams like the Rockets that love to push the tempo.

Jones is the best healthy individual rebounder for Houston on either end, specializing in grabbing his own team's misses. Harden, Brewer and Ariza rebound pretty well from the wings, but as a whole, the Rockets aren't strong on the glass. According to NBA.com, Portland's been the best defensive rebounding team by percentage since the All-Star break, led unsurprisingly by the efforts of Aldridge, Lopez and Kaman. Batum and Lillard both rebound effectively for their positions. The Blazers have a solid advantage on the glass with Howard out tonight, but don't discount a motivated and improved Jones playing in front of a hometown crowd -- he's shown a lot of growth on the court lately, including his efforts on the boards.

Stopping or slowing down Harden with Matthews watching from the sidelines probably seems like a fool's errand on the face of it for many Blazers fans; After all, it was mostly Matthews who held Harden to 37.6 percent shooting from the field and 29.6 percent shooting from outside in last year's playoffs. But consider that The Beard has averaged 44.5 points, six rebounds and 7.5 assists in two games against the Blazers this year, making 49 percent of all his field goals and 42.1 percent of his three-pointers. And that's with a healthy Matthews drawing the assignment.

Stotts had this to say to the Oregonian's Sean Meagher yesterday when asked how he would approach the matchup with Harden:

"It takes everybody. We're gonna have different players guard him, maybe have a couple schemes if he has it going, but I think a lot of players will have their shot at him."

Expect to see Afflalo, Batum, McCollum and Gee all get a chance tonight at slowing Harden. He'll likely put up somewhere in the neighborhood of 20 shots and get to the free throw line about a dozen times, all while setting up teammates via his penetration and kickouts.

About a month ago, Portland managed Harden's 45 points (11-for-25 shooting from the field, 4-for-10 from deep, 19-for-23 from the foul line) and out-lasted the Rockets down the stretch en route to a 109-98 win. How'd the Blazers manage to pull off the victory? Harden's supporting cast shot a combined 20-for-57 from the field (35 percent) and scored 53 total points, meaning eight guys scored just eight more points than Harden did that game alone.

If Portland can keep a lid on Jones, Brewer, Ariza, Smith and Terry, Harden's output -- no matter how gaudy -- could likely be absorbed, and a win tonight would secure the three-game season series with the Rockets, 2-1.

-- Chris Lucia | blazersedgepodcast@gmail.com | Twitter

Sam Tongue's Key Matchup: