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Portland Trailblazers vs. Houston Rockets Preview

Houston, how much of a problem do we have, really? As the Rockets are one of Portland’s most talented and unpredictable opponents of late, tonight will be an interesting test-launch for all involved.

So...uh, how's the family?
So...uh, how's the family?
Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports

Portland Trail Blazers (30-27) vs. Houston Rockets (28-29)
Thursday, February 25
Moda Center | 7:30 p.m. PST | Local TV/Radio: TNT; 620 AM
Portland injury report
: None | Houston injury report: Donatas Motiejunas (Back - Indefinitely)
SBN Affiliate: The Dream Shake | Blazer's Edge Night 2016

How bad have things gotten for the Rockets? I didn’t even want to write this preview. I tried to contact red94.net, an excellent Rockets blog, for a Q&A as a stand-in piece, but their e-mail inbox wasn’t functional. And I’m not the type to write tweets asking for help, or to write tweets at all, really. But maybe I should’ve, cuz red94.net has 7,000+ Twitter followers, and I have…25. Hey, I think Aaliyah (RIP) once said that tweets ain’t nothing but a number of algorithmic value. (Yes, that last line was Daryl Morey clickbait.)

Anyway, the deep cycle of dysfunction that is this preview actually fits the subject matter rather appropriately.

It’s definitely too early and too un-Portland to gloat, though. All you have to do is consider the gut-punch that you received when the Blazers saw a 17-point lead in Houston disappear back when the Rockets had been playing bad enough to get their coach fired. Just ask last season’s Clippers what this team can do. Without James Harden. (Food for thought, Morey. And the artist formerly known as ‘James’.  Taco Bell, take note.)

True story – the 2012 USA team played an exhibition tournament against Spain and Argentina in Barcelona just before the Olympics. Coach K decided that James Harden got 2 minutes of playing time in this mini-tournament, being a backup on OKC at the moment (0 minutes for Anthony Davis), just before getting traded to ‘stardom.' Counter-culture Barcelona gave Harden and his mohawk the sixth-loudest ovation during USA introductions both games, (behind, in order, Kobe [and his Italian heritage], LeBron, Durant, CP3 [who dunked easily with two hands {?} in an impromptu warm-up dunk contest], and Melo). Harden jerseys and mohawks among fans might’ve been the biggest single-player turnout in the tourney.

Oh, how the mighty have fallen. Unless you’re a soccer fan (non-Thorns/Timbers, of course), and then that floats your boat. The rolling around on the ground is just a bonus.

OK – that was James Harden clickbait…and…27 followers!

The Blazers lead the Rockets 2-0 in a series that started three weeks ago. We won’t count the November matchup for homer purposes, since this year’s Blazers were just learning to crawl back then. Houston has dropped three straight games to the two younger and more focused teams ahead of them in the playoff race, including an OT loss in Utah Tuesday night. With a likely major shake-up coming to this roster in the offseason, it’s do-or-die for this Houston unit—really probably do-and-die— and it’s about even money on whether they will continue to unravel or pull together for one last run.

Obviously the recent incarnations of the Rockets have boasted top-flight talent; it’s their chemistry issues, exemplified by their studs Harden and Dwight Howard, that have held them back—even according to the promotion spin-cycle at NBA.com. An excellent homegrown overview of the team’s cultural backwardness can be found in Eric Griffith’s preview from the beginning of this February series. Also, because defense.

Here’s some more clickbait for Morey (and ‘James’): No. 25 in defensive rating, No. 26 in assist to turnover ratio, No. 22 in assist ratio. Numbers definitely are important.  

Arguably the best thing that has happened recently for Houston is a nominally embarrassing bounceback of the attempted trade-deadline move of Donatas Motiejunas and Marcus Thornton to the Pistons for a first-round pick. Tests of the Lithuanian stretch-five's back did not meet the state of Michigan's lofty health standards.

If completed, the trade arguably could've optimistically been seen as a value move of a pending restricted free agent with an intimately known injury history and a scorer in Thornton who can’t (won’t?) play D…but a 25-year old seven-footer with positional flexibility, exceptional post moves, a shot from deep, and a couple years deep on your team seems like a pretty useful piece in today’s NBA.

I assume I should expect complimentary tickets to the Sloan Conference any time now.

What the Blazers Need to Do to Win:

Channel Ideal Maurice Harkless: The 22-year-old-offseason-afterthought exemplifies hustle, and that earned him a tidy 16.5 PPG and 9.5 rebounds average in the two other February games against Houston. You know the coach’s mantra: Four people boxing out is not enough. Houston is often lucky to have half that. Demoralize them with that U2-type De-zyyy-eye-eye-eye-HE-urrrr and a win may be ready to take wing.

Take it off the bounce with clear eyes: Defense and effort are inextricably linked in coaches’ jargon. What is difficult to divine in the Rockets’ case is how much the ‘Ole’ defense of Harden sets the tone for the team, or whether former defensive stalwarts Patrick Beverley, Trevor Ariza, and Corey Brewer have truly just lost athleticism with time. Who cares? Free points.

Fustigate the ‘Others’: Harden and Howard have obvious individual offensive advantages that will likely net between 60-100 points. If you keep it towards the former, the rest of Houston’s roster has shown little consistency. But this game could well be approached as a watershed moment for this Houston team, and its interim coach (what’s his name? Beavers might know). Nothing and no one, especially those getting some extra PT due to the recent "trade," should be taken for granted in this one.

Outlook

The Blazers are on fire. The Rockets are an enigma. How far one or the other will go is anyone’s guess. This is as good as 2/3rds of the season pro hoops gets!