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Portland Trail Blazers at Houston Rockets Preview

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The Blazers will most likely be without their star Damian Lillard against the West’s top team.

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NBA: Houston Rockets at Portland Trail Blazers Craig Mitchelldyer-USA TODAY Sports

Portland Trail Blazers (48-30) at Houston Rockets (63-15)

Thursday, April 5th - 5:00 p.m. PT
Blazers injuries: Maurice Harkless (out), Ed Davis (out), Damian Lillard (out)
Rockets injuries: Ryan Anderson (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

The Portland Trail Blazers face off against the Houston Rockets for the final time this season. The Rockets put an end to Portland’s 13-game win streak the last time these two teams matched up. The Blazers are coming off a disappointing loss to the Mavericks in Dallas in which Damian Lillard tweaked his ankle in the game, and he is not expected to play Thursday. With only four games left in the season, Portland needs two wins or two losses by Utah and San Antonio to lock up the 3-seed in the Western Conference — Update: The Spurs lost to the Lakers Wednesday night.

Houston is already guaranteed the best record in the NBA. Since they have nothing to play for, they have rested players in recent games. Trevor Ariza didn’t suit up against the Wizards on Tuesday. Chris Paul sat the previous three games. James Harden and Eric Gordon have also taken turns resting in recent games. Despite this, the Rockets keep winning. They have only lost once — against the Spurs in San Antonio on Sunday — in their last 13 games.

What to watch for

  • Contribution from Jusuf Nurkic. With Damian Lillard likely sitting this one out, Portland will hope to get a solid outing from their starting center. In the last matchup with the Rockets, Nurkic put up 21 points (on 9-for-10 shooting), 11 rebounds, and four blocks. The Blazers will need him to be a threat inside on both ends of the floor while staying out of foul trouble.
  • Slowing down James Harden. Harden is likely the league’s MVP this year. He’s leading the league with 30.7 point per game and is third in assists with 8.8 per game. Harden is an efficient scorer who averages more than ten free throws and 3-point attempts per game. In two games against Portland this season Harden has put up 48 and 42 points. He’s a combined 9-for-14 from 3-point land in those games and got to the line at least 14 times in each.
  • Who will step up for Portland? The Blazers will likely need multiple players to step up in Lillard’s absence. McCollum put up 42 points when Portland played without Lillard last week, but it wasn’t enough to get a win against a tanking Memphis team. Even if the Rockets rest one or more key players, the Blazers will need good shooting nights from Aminu, Turner, and Napier (who went a combined 1-for-15 on 3-pointers in the Memphis loss) if they want to keep up with Rockets’ firepower.

What they’re saying

ESPN’s Tim MacMahon wrote that the Rockets didn’t care when they recently set a franchise record for wins in a season:

“It’s a good team accomplishment in the regular season, but we’ve got bigger goals than that,” MVP front-runner James Harden said after his 27-point, six-rebound, eight-assist performance against the Pelicans. “So it’s just a step to where we want to go.”

Chris Paul didn’t come to Houston to celebrate regular-season milestones. From the moment Paul succeeded in pushing for a trade from the LA Clippers, the Rockets accepted championship-or-bust terms.

A trip to the Western Conference finals -- or a round further than Paul has ever been in his career -- is the bare minimum for the Rockets to avoid ridicule. Putting up a good fight against the defending-champion Warriors would be enough to earn respect from any rational basketball mind.

But that sure wouldn’t be satisfying for the Rockets.

Darren Yuvan of The Dream Shake discussed the benefit of resting key players:

And as we head down the final stretch of the regular season, I fully expect these guys to get even more nights off to keep them healthy for a potential championship run. That’s the first thing resting guys does.

The second thing it does is often overlooked, but perhaps just as important: it helps some of the other rotation players get some serious court time and not only get into rhythm, but also get into the habit of spearheading a Rockets win. Come playoff time, Houston is going to need all of their hands on deck, because while Harden, Paul, Gordon, and Capela are obviously the guys who stir the Rockets’ drink, history tells us close playoff games are often decided by the secondary players.

The Ringer’s Haley O’Shaughnessy wrote about what is at stake for James Harden and Chris Paul this postseason:

CP3 is as much a legend—the holy Point God—as he is a cautionary tale. Losing to Utah in seven made him, officially, the least successful postseason player in history; 76 games is the most all-time for one player without a conference finals appearance. Paul overperformed his regular season averages for the last three playoffs, but stats don’t matter so long as his postseason voodoo doll is still out in the world. Harden, on the other hand, becomes less efficient in the playoffs but has been to three conference finals.

The Rockets, though dipping slightly of late, established such consistency that they became the NBA’s premier boring team. Beating out Golden State for the 1-seed only makes expectations higher, and another early-out, collective choke job would be all the more disappointing.