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Portland Trail Blazers vs. Houston Rockets Preview

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Can the Blazers end their three-game skid tonight against the Rockets?

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NBA: Brooklyn Nets at Houston Rockets Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Portland Trail Blazers (13-11) vs. Houston Rockets (19-4)

Saturday, December 9th - 7:00 p.m. PT
Blazers injuries: Jusuf Nurkic (out), Moe Harkless (questionable)
Rockets injuries: Nene Hilario (out), Zhou Qi (out)
How to watch on TV: NBCSNW, NBA League Pass (outside of Portland)
How to stream: YouTube Live TV, Playstation Vue, Hulu Live TV, FuboTV, NBA League Pass (outside of Portland)
Radio: 620 AM
SBN Affiliate: The Dream Shake

Portland has a tough challenge as they try to salvage what they can from a disastrous home stand. The Blazers have lost three in a row at the Moda and now face off against the Western Conference-leading Rockets. Houston has won its last eight games and only lost once since the end of October. Portland will be without Jusuf Nurkic, who injured his ankle in Tuesday’s loss to the Washington Wizards.

What to watch for

  • The Rockets’ dynamic backcourt. When Houston traded for Chris Paul this summer, some wondered how two ball-dominant guards would mesh. The season is still early, but the answer seems to be that they will fit together just fine. The Rockets are undefeated with Paul, who missed 14 games after injuring his knee in the season opener. Paul’s presence hasn’t cut into Harden’s usage at all. Instead, it’s up slightly this year (35.6) from last year (34.1). He’s shooting more than he did in his MVP runner-up season and hitting at a higher rate—especially from three, where Harden is shooting a career high 40.2 percent on 11 attempts. Paul’s scoring is down from previous seasons, but he’s distributing the ball more efficiently than ever, averaging 10.1 assists to go with a career-low 1.8 turnovers.
  • 3-pointers … lots of them. Last season Houston set an NBA record for most threes made with 1,181, averaging 14.4 a game on 40.3 attempts. This season they are taking and making even more—16.2 makes on 44 attempts. Harden and Eric Gorden lead the league in attempts per game, and Ryan Anderson and Trevor Ariza are in the top 15. They aren’t just top-heavy either; the Rockets have eight players attempting at least two 3-pointers per game (for comparison, Portland has four). The Blazers have defended the 3-point line well this season—they are allowing the fewest threes per game of any team—but they’ll have to make sure they are jumping out at Houston’s shooters.
  • Who will start at center for the Blazers? With Nurkic out, Terry Stotts has a decision to make on the starting lineup. Does Noah Vonleh, who has started 12 games next to Nurk, get the start at center? Does Stotts move Ed Davis or Meyers Leonard up to the starting spot? Or does he give an opportunity to one of the rookies—Caleb Swanigan or Zach Collins—who have seen little to no playing time in the past few games? The availability of Moe Harkless, who is listed as questionable, may complicate the decision.

What they’re saying

Chris Herring at FiveThirtyEight.com analyzed the improved Rockets defense:

Entering Thursday’s game with the red-hot Utah Jazz, Houston’s defense is surrendering just 100.9 points per 100 possessions, fifth-best in the league. That defensive rating is slightly better than the Warriors’ and represents a night-and-day difference from last season, when the Rockets ranked just 18th, allowing 106.4 points per 100 possessions.

A handful of things explain why the club’s defense has performed so well after a pair of lackluster defensive seasons. Among them: The Rockets have gotten much better at protecting the rim and other high-value spots on the court that once troubled them; the team’s weakest defenders are performing better (or getting luckier?) than they did in the past; and Houston has used its own scoring ability to pay dividends on the other end.

Max Croes of The Dream Shake took a look at how Chris Paul’s return has impacted the Rockets’ 3-point efficiency:

Paul’s presence, penetration and pace are pulling opposing defenses in new directions leaving shooters more open than ever before. More importantly Mike D’Antoni’s dream scenario has come true, there’s always a Hall of Fame point guard running the show.

Gone from the Rockets offense are the lulls of a second unit marshaled by Patrick Beverley or Eric Gordon. In its place is more Moreyball, more three pointers, led by Chris Paul pushing the most high-octane offense of his career.

Paul’s presence, with and without James Harden, and his elite passing have created more quality three point opportunities than Harden is able to on his own.

On Friday, The Ringer placed James Harden 2nd on their list of the top 25 NBA players (Dame was 15th). Jonathan Tjarks wrote about Harden and his fit with Chris Paul:

Chris Paul’s injury on opening night clarified the situation in Houston. The Rockets are Harden’s team, and everyone else, even the Point God, has to find a way to complement him. Harden still holds the ball for most of the game, and he’s actually taking more shots than he did last season. He’s an offensive machine who can score at will from all over the floor, and he’s found a coach and a system that fits him perfectly. There’s not much defenses can do to stop him. Why change something that works this well?