Portland Trail Blazers (24-27) vs (27-25)
Saturday, February 6
Toyota Center | 2:00 p.m. PST | Local TV/Radio: CSNNW; 620 AM
Portland injury report: Noah Vonleh (Questionable - Ankle) | Houston injury report: Terrence Jones (Out - Concussion), Montrezl Harrell (Probable - Illness), Sam Dekker (Out - Back)
SBN Affiliate: The Dream Shake | Blazer's Edge Night 2016
If there's one clip that accurately sums up the Houston Rockets' 2015-2016 season through 52 games, it's this one from their Thursday night game against the Phoenix Suns:
In this clip, the Rockets are getting their butts kicked by the Suns - the absolute worst team in the NBA at the moment. Their superstar, James Harden, looks on incredulously as he realizes he's being pulled from the game for a lack of effort on defense.
It's hard to overstate how pathetic this scene is; the Suns' announcers openly chuckle at Harden's entitlement-fueled obliviousness to the situation. Just a reminder: The Suns are terrible right now, and have been called out for their lack of effort on several occasions this season. When their announcers are openly mocking your team...things are pretty bad.
All season the Rockets have been plagued by a similar lack of effort and lack of self-awareness on the part of the players. A blatant unwillingness to put forth a consistent effort has sunk the team from Western Conference finalists to first round playoff fodder. On offense the Houston players are often completely stagnant, content to watch Harden drive to the lane to get his own points, and on defense they can't be bothered to close out on shooters, fight around screens, or stop transition opportunities.
Usually the line that a team "played with little effort" is a lazy excuse employed by talking heads on ESPN interested in driving ratings and creating an easy to follow narrative. But the 2016 Houston Rockets are an exception: They just don't give a damn.
The heart of the problem has been the team's de facto leader Harden. Coming off an MVP-caliber season, in which he actually put forth a full effort on defense, fans expected that he would continue to "make the leap" forward as a true top-5 NBA player. Instead, Harden has regressed on defense, often willing to literally stand and watch as his man scores. Multiple analysts have called Harden out as the team's primary problem, and even his own teammates and coach have complained.
Similar to Harden, the team's other supposed superstar, Dwight Howard, has been less than helpful this season. Rumors have swirled that he wants out of Harden's shadow (although Houston has publicly denied willingness to trade him), possibly further disrupting the team's chemistry. On the court he is prone to harmful lapses in judgement, recently resulting in an easily avoidable ejection and suspension for contact with a referee. At 30 years of age, Howard is no longer the dominating force that fans remember from Orlando, and compounded with his questionable attitude he has become an issue for the Rockets.
Beyond Harden and Howard, the Rockets players have done little to elevate themselves. Offseason acquisition Ty Lawson, especially, has been more of a disruption than a positive addition. In general, the players seem mostly indifferent, content to watch Harden on offense and half heartedly chase their man on defense.
While the Rockets players, especially Harden and Howard, have taken the brunt of the blame so far this season, GM Daryl Morey should not be absolved of all responsibility. He has famously built a team based almost entirely toward optimizing efficiency as dictated by basketball analytics. The Rockets' front office has succeeded at ridding itself of midrange jumpers in favor of exclusively shooting from the paint or beyond the 3-point line. The problem is that the strategy has not sent the Rockets into the upper echelons of NBA offenses; they're offensive rating is good but not great (No. 7 overall). As noted by Vice Sports, Morey may have, essentially, outsmarted himself by dogmatically refusing to deviate from his plan.
In addition, Morey's system overlooks potential chemistry concerns. Players are evaluated as statistical commodities rather than individuals who may or may not match well from a personality perspective. This leads to the awkward Harden and Howard pairing. Howard, for example, has hated running pick-and-rolls since his days with the Lakers, and the two Houston stars have never meshed well.
Morey also overlooks the consequences of letting effective players leave the team when their salary becomes less than ideal. He once attempted to lure Carmelo Anthony to the Rockets by advertising a photoshopped version of Melo in a No. 7 Rockets jersey. At the time, Jeremy Lin wore that number and had been a key member of the 2014 squad, helping to relieve pressure from Harden. Lin had to be traded soon after. Morey also opted not to match Chandler Parsons' offer sheet from Dallas because the contract would have been very difficult to trade. This despite the fact that Parsons was very effective during his time in Houston.
Evidence suggests that players have begun to pick up on Morey's callousness:
The Rockets did not just lose Lin either. The organization's clearly lost credibility with big-time players.
Dragic shows no interest in a Rockets return after Chris Bosh shows no real interest in the Rockets (outside of using them as pre-blood clot leverage with Miami) after Kyle Lowry shows absolutely no interest in a Rockets reunion. Good players are running from an organization that's shown little respect for anyone not named Harden or Howard on its own roster. Who's surprised by that?
When you treat players like nothing but disposable numbers, they leap to find their numbers elsewhere.
Portland's playoff hopes
The Blazers have defied expectations this season by fighting for a playoff seed despite their massive roster overhaul. They have succeeded primarily by, predictably, beating cellar dwellars (19-10 vs. below .500 teams), but losing to better opponents (5-17 vs. .500 and above teams). The trend was apparent in their last two games. On Tuesday, the Blazers did not dominate against Milwaukee, but controlled from buzzer to buzzer, picking up a straightforward win. By the same token, the Blazers were more or less manhandled against Toronto on Thursday. The Raptors opened up a big lead in the first by expertly exploiting the Blazers' weaknesses, and then played well enough to keep the game just out of reach.
Unfortunately for the Blazers, 20 of their remaining 31 games are against teams with a record of .500 or better, and 13 of their remaining road games are against teams with winning records. If Portland continues to win at the same pace against above .500 teams and below .500 teams they can expect about 11 more victories for the season. That would give them a record of 35-47, which seems unlikely to net a playoff spot.
Thus, if the Blazers hope to sneak in to the No. 8 seed, they must start to win more games against the teams directly above them in the standings, including Houston. While no single game in an 82-game schedule is truly decisive, a win this afternoon would do a lot to boost the team's playoff hopes going forward.
Keys to the game
Show up: As mentioned above, the Rockets have had effort problems all season. When they are firing on all cylinders they can be very difficult to beat. Therefore, the Blazers will want to come out strong and give full effort to show that they will not be pushovers. If they do that, there's a good chance the Rockets players will mentally pack it in and move on to less motivated opposition.
Limit Harden's penetration: James Harden is brutally effective in the lane. He draws fouls at a near record pace and can single handedly tear apart a defense. That being said, he is also willing to settle for step back jumpers and 3-pointers. If the Blazers can goad Harden into jacking up threes, rather than collapsing the defense in the paint, they may be able to prevent Harden from getting other Rockets players into the offense.
Let Meyers lose on Dwight, use intentional fouls as necessary: Howard is always a matchup problem for the Blazers. This season, especially, dominant centers have given the team trouble. Portland will need to use physical play to keep Howard off the boards so other players can scramble for the rebounds. Meyers Leonard has been effective in the last week against DeMarcus Cousins and Greg Monroe. If he can show more of the same against Howard for short spurts it will be a boost to Portland's chances.
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