I was listening to P.J. Carlesimo on the radio yesterday morning (how many of y’all remember that he guided the Brooklyn Nets last season?), and he made a good point. Almost never is there an upset in a 4 vs. 5 series. The teams are usually too evenly matched.
In this case, we have two teams that finished with identical 54-28 records.
Houston gets the home court by virtue of winning the season series 3-1. And if they get past the Blazers, they move into the second round against the San Antonio Spurs (baring a major upset by Dallas) knowing they had the Spurs’ number this season, sweeping them 4-0.
Usually, any team that has Dwight Howard on it is a team that needs Howard at his dominant best in order to advance. But these Rockets are different. James Harden is their key player, and they [proved late in the season that they can get by just fine with Omer Asik manning the middle. Yes, they are much tougher with Howard in the lineup. But no, they are not dependent on him the way the Lakers were last year or the Orlando Magic were for so many years prior to that.
As for the Blazers, it was abundantly clear that they needed LaMarcus Aldridge healthy in order to be a powerhouse team. The leveling off that we saw from them beginning at the midpoint of the season coincided with Aldridge getting sidelined. One thing is certain going into this series, as you will see in factor No. 1: The Blazers are more dependent on Aldridge against the Rockets than they are against any other opponent.
1. First team to 100 wins? Or 110? Or 120?
In four games this season, the Rockets have averaged 116.0 points against the Trail Blazers, the second-highest average against Portland in the NBA this year behind the Clippers’ 117.0. Portland scored 438 total points against Houston this season, held a 89-73 advantage in assists and a 62-55 advantage in offensive rebounds. Aldridge owns a career average of 21.1 points per game against Houston, and in the regular season Aldridge scored 107 total points, his highest point total against any team. Aldridge also grabbed a total of 62 rebounds against Houston, his highest rebounding total again any opponent.
The average score of their four regular-season games was 116-110 Houston, and in 13 of the past 15 meetings the winning team has scored 100-plus points.
2. How healthy is Howard? And how healthy is Patrick Beverley?
We’ve already noted how the Rockets can be OK without Howard due to the abilities of Asik. Howard missed eight straight games and 11 of 13 before returning for the final three games of the regular season — one of which featured him dominating the Spurs to the tune of 20 points. Beverley was previously thought to be lost for the season because of a meniscus tear on March 27, but came back after missing just eight games. He is as much of a key to the team’s success as any member of the roster, as Shlomo Sprung explains in this post.
3. Which All-Star will have the biggest impact?
There are four of them in this series: Harden, Howard, Aldridge and Damian Lillard. And if you ask me, Lillard is going to have to be the biggest impact player of that foursome in order for the Blazers to win.
Houston attempted 26.6 3-point shots per game, the most in the NBA. That is to be expected on any team that has opposing defenses collapsing on Howard, and the Rockets will get plenty of attempts from Harden (6.6 attempts per game), Chandler Parsons (4.7 attempts per game) and Beverley (4.6 attempts).
As for the Blazers, Lillard has the most range and takes the most 3-point shots (6.8) of any player in this series. But his conversion rate (.394) leaves something to be desired, and if he isn’t hitting from long range, he needs to hope that Wes Mathews (.393), Nicolas Batum (.391) or Mo Williams (.369) can knock down the long ball at something better than a 40 percent clip.
You know what you are going to get from Howard, Harden and Aldridge. That’s why Portland’s point guard is the biggest x-factor for the Blazers in this series.
4. How will foul trouble impact the Blazers?
If Robin Lopez picks up a few quick fouls, the Blazers could be doomed — if the Rockets take advantage and have Howard do his thing against backups Joel Freeland and Meyers Leonard.
Also, Batum and Matthews will get the defensive assignment on Harden, who knows a thing or two about how to get to the free throw line. His 665 attempts this season were the third-most in the NBA behind Kevin Durant and Blake Griffin. Harden’s .866 conversion rate from the line placed him in the Top 10 in free throw accuracy.
Howard, by the way, shot 54.7 percent from the line — an increase over his percentages from the previous two seasons, but also the third-worst accuracy mark of his career. So at some point, we should see Hack-a-Howard. It has become a very useful weapon over the past three seasons, and we’re seeing it more and more.
5. Do the Blazers have enough left in the tank?
With the exception of Aldridge, who missed 13 games, the other members of the starting five played all 82 games.
Houston’s starting power forward, is younger, smaller and not as imposing as Aldridge, who is capable of exploiting a mismatch and drawing a double team with his polished, inside-outside game. He will need lots of help.
Three other notable reasons for optimism for the Blazers: good health (the four starter besides Aldridge each played in all 82 games. Portland’s lineup of Lillard, Matthews, Batum, Aldridge and Lopez logged 1,373 minutes together this season, the second most of any five-man unit, and their chemistry shows in the stat known as turnover percentage, in which they turned the ball over the fewest times of any NBA team.
Turnovers could be as much of a key as 3-point shooting, as Harden and Beverely are prone to committing them, whereas Lillard and Mathews — Portland’s backcourt — are not.
MORE PLAYOFF PREVIEWS
CHRIS SHERIDAN – ROCKETS in 7
MARK HEISLER – ROCKETS in 5
JAN HUBBARD – ROCKETS in 7
DANNY SCHAYES – ROCKETS in 7
CHRIS BERNUCCA – BLAZERS in 6
PETER MAY – ROCKETS in 6
BOBBY GONZALEZ – ROCKETS in 7
SHLOMO SPRUNG – BLAZERS in 7
JIM PARK – ROCKETS in 5
MIKE SCOTTO – ROCKETS in 4
ANDY KAMENETZKY – ROCKETS in 6
BRIAN KAMENETZKY – ROCKETS in 6