Tonight the Trail Blazers, in the middle of the second longest winning streak in franchise history, face off against the Houston Rockets, the best team in the NBA. It’ll the biggest regular season game the Blazers have played since Wes Matthews’ achilles tendon self-destructed three years ago.
It seems like every writer in the basket-blog-o-sphere has asked if the Blazers are “for real” during the streak and this game will act as a solid short-term barometer. The Rockets have the best record in the league and are winners of 26 of their last 28 games, have suffered no major injuries unlike many other Western Conference playoff teams, and haven’t quite started resting their key players for the playoffs yet.
The question on everyone’s mind: What do the Blazers need to do to win this game? Here are a few suggestions:
Force Harden into the Mid-Range
The Rockets, more than any other team in the league, shoehorn efficient shots into their offense at all costs. They abhor the mid-range while jacking up more 3-pointers than any team in history.
In the past, Terry Stotts has found ways to use that dogmatic adherence to efficiency against the Rockets. The Blazers 117-107 win over Houston on March 31 last year — for my money, the most impressive win the team has since 2015 — provides a case study. In that game, Blazers slowed James Harden by ceding the inefficient mid-range jumper in the pick and roll — Jusuf Nurkic and Meyers Leonard regularly dropped back into the paint to either cover the opposing center or contest a shot around the rim while primary defenders Maurice Harkless and Evan Turner recovered. Harden would often either shoot an out of rhythm shot in the middle of the floor, or force a pass to the perimeter:
Blazers coach Terry Stotts will likely try to force Harden into similar situations tonight. The Blazers’ ability to execute that gameplan, or Harden’s ability to compensate, will be the key factor.
Can the Blazers Contain Chris Paul?
Of course, the Rockets have changed ever so slightly since last season.
They have Chris Paul now.
That’s a problem for Stotts because Paul adds a mid-range dimension to the Rockets offense; unlike Harden, Paul has no problem pulling up in the middle of the court when an ICE defense gives him room around the free throw line. His heat map this season illustrates:
Paul’s mid-range game, and to a lesser extent Ryan Anderson’s, has added a new element to the Rockets’ offense. Last year Houston had nobody shooting over 41% in mid-range. This year they have Paul (54% on 165 shots) and Anderson (56% on 45 shots). Together, they’ve taken 42% of the Rockets’ mid-range shots (237 of 555). Houston is still dead last in mid-range shot attempts per game, but when they do attempt them they are efficient, primarily thanks to Paul.
The most inefficient shot in basketball may be the NBA's latest market inefficiency. The Warriors are extracting value from the least valuable part of the court: the mid-range. https://t.co/IRgInm5J1r pic.twitter.com/JYV1ehbziQ— Ben Cohen (@bzcohen) March 20, 2018
In short, the Blazers must find a way to force Harden into the mid-range, while simultaneously forcing Paul out of that area.
Paul, who will turn 33 years old this summer, has lost a step from his absolute peak, but he still averages 18 points and 8 assists per game. The Blazers saw how dangerous he could be earlier this January when Harden sat out a head-to-head matchup. Paul lead the Rockets to a 121-112 victory over Portland with 37 points, 11 assists, and 7 rebounds.
To make matters worse, Paul has been Lillard’s personal kryptonite for Dame’s entire career:
(Table from Basketball Reference)
To be fair, Lillard has played well against Paul this season, but the Blazers will need more than “pretty good” in this matchup. They’ll need Lillard to significantly outplay Paul.
Can the best coach in the NBA this season find a way to slow down Paul’s freelancing in the mid-range, while maintaining a gameplan that prevents efficient play from Harden and the rest of the Rockets’ lineup, all while bucking the trend of Lillard being outplaying by his rival? Let’s just say I’m glad I’m not in Stotts’ shoes tonight.
Be Ahead by 5 Points With 3 Minutes to Go
The Blazers are pretty good in the clutch this season. They have the No. 4 best record (23-14) in the league in games with clutch moments, and have the No. 10 best net rating in those situations (10.0) (stats per stats.nba.com). Here’s the problem: The Rockets have been better in clutch games.
The Rockets have the best clutch record in the NBA at 20-9 and they’ve posted an absurd net rating of 23.9. Their offensive rating of 130 is 13 points per 100 possessions ahead of the next closest team, the 76ers. For comparison, the 13 point gap between the Rockets and Sixers is larger than the gap between the Sixers and the No. 18 team, the Lakers.
Paul, again, will be a problem if the game is close down the stretch. He has a net rating of 55.5 in those situations while maintaining a usage rate of 30.4 percent. No other player with a usage of at least 20 percent has a net rating of even 30.
Dame Time is definitely a thing this season, but the the Blazers probably don’t want to be relying on Lillard’s flamethrowers down the stretch tonight. The Rockets are good enough to fire back. If the Blazers hope to win, they should look to take a two possession lead into the closing minutes.
What About Nurkic?
Nurkic is likely the X-factor for the Blazers tonight. He’ll play a key role in forcing Harden into the mid-range defensively and also be a factor helping Portland maintain an advantage on the boards — the Blazers are the third best rebounding team in the league while the Rockets are No. 17.
Lillard and Nurkic have also been playing immaculate pick and roll basketball over the last few games. That’s thanks in no small part to improved shooting from Harkless and Al-Farou Aminu, of course, but the pair have still been executing as well as they ever have. Nurkic will need to take advantage of that and give the Blazers a bruising low post scoring option that modern defenses, like Houston, are not entirely prepared to contain.
In short, it’s no coincidence that Nurkic had 19 points and 11 rebounds when the Blazers beat the Rockets last March at the height of Nurk Fever, but had only 8 points and 8 rebounds on 13 shots when the Blazers lost in January.
Appreciating the little things.
Aminu makes a bad decision. Aminu makes a good decision!
Aminu’s been shooting well from deep this season but, in general, if Lillard is wiiiide open at the top of the key the Blazers probably want that shot. Aminu apparently missed the memo early on in the Blazers victory over the Pistons:
Not sure Aminu made the best decision here when he shot. pic.twitter.com/2xEtDgAQmw— Eric Griffith (@EricG_NBA) March 18, 2018
After missing that obvious pass, it was nice to see Aminu recover later in the game and use a ball fake(?!) to free himself for a wide open triple in the corner. Great stuff!
Meyers Leonard Setting Screens
Meyers Leonard has been effective in spot minutes off the bench in recent games. His stats aren’t eye-popping, but he has filled in reliably against the Clippers, Pistons, Lakers, and Thunder during the Blazers’ win streak. For a player that has struggled to find consistent minutes all season, a niche as a low-minutes and reliable backup when Nurkic gets into foul trouble is a useful role.
One thing that’s stood out is Leonard’s screens. He’s gotten the knack of using his large frame to completely overwhelm opposing guards and free up the Blazers’ guards. Leonard can’t be relied on to score inside, and his jump shot is too slow to be effective unless he’s WIDE open, but he can increase his value if he keeps providing “screen assists.”
HD Footage of the Winning Streak from the 2007-08 Season
HD footage from the Blazers’ last 13-game streak, during the Brandon Roy era, is pretty hard to find. Kudos to Blazers Broadcasting for giving us a brief sample (including Roy’s switch-hand layup vs. the Raptors!) in the following clip.
Now let’s hope we’re pining for UHD highlights of a 14+ game win streak in 2028!