NBA Playoff Preview - Houston vs. Portland
By Jim Brighters, NBA Editor
Houston Rockets: 4th Seed, West (54-28)
Portland Trail Blazers: 5th Seed, West (54-28)
(SportsNetwork.com) - Offense will be at a premium when the Houston Rockets take on the Portland Trail Blazers in the quarterfinals of the Western Conference playoffs.
The Rockets are the NBA's second-ranked offense at 107.7 ppg, followed by the Trail Blazers, who are fourth with 106.9 ppg.
Houston secured the home-court advantage with a win on Monday against the NBA's best, the San Antonio Spurs.
"We fought hard for it. It took a little longer than I hoped but we knew we had to get 54 wins and we got there with one to spare," said Rockets coach Kevin McHale.
The matchup between the two squads has been decidedly in Houston's favor over the last few seasons. The Rockets have won nine of the last 12 meetings, including three of four this season.
"It's the West. We don't care who we're going to play, it's going to be tough anyway," said Portland forward Nicolas Batum. "Houston is a good team, a great team. They've got a good group of players. We match up pretty well with them. We've had good games, tough games."
The Rockets were believed to be a serious contender for an NBA title when they signed prized free agent Dwight Howard in the offseason.
Portland, on the other hand, was a bit of a surprise this season. The Blazers hadn't made the playoffs the last two seasons, but the core group stayed healthy and the bench improved significantly.
Both teams sent two players to the All-Star game this season.
For Houston, Howard was impactful, but the main star in the Rockets' offensive explosion has been James Harden. The best two-guard in the game averaged 25.4 ppg.
The Blazers were represented in New Orleans at the midseason showcase by LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard. That duo formed the nucleus of the second-highest scoring starting lineup in the league behind only the Minnesota Timberwolves' first five.
As expected due to both teams' high offensive output, defense has suffered. The Blazers ranked 22nd in opponents' scoring, while the Rockets were one rung below.
These two teams met in the first round back in 2009, but oh how different they both are just five years later. Houston has no players on the roster from that team, which was led by Yao Ming, while only Aldridge and Batum remain for the Blazers.
"It won't be easy. It is going to be fun," said Batum. "Excited finally for playoffs to start because we wait too much for that, now almost three years, so ready to start."
BACKCOURT: Harden is clearly ascended to the top spot among shooting guards with Dwyane Wade's decline. Harden isn't just a scorer as evidenced by his career-best 6.1 assists per game. He gets to the free-throw line at an amazing rate, but he is a revolving door on the defensive side. That's why Patrick Beverley is in the Rockets' starting lineup. He is the best defensive perimeter player in a Houston uniform and a supreme agitator. Beverley is a decent scorer at 10.2 ppg and a decent 3-point shooter at 36 percent. He's not a great facilitator, but that's what Harden, and to some degree Jeremy Lin off the bench, is for. Beverley overcame a torn meniscus in his right knee.
Lillard made his first All-Star team and finished behind the Golden State Warriors' backcourt of Steph Curry and Klay Thompson in 3-pointers made. He's going to make an All-NBA team this offseason with averages of 20.7 ppg, 5.6 apg and 39 percent shooting from long range. He's a top-five point guard in the league, although he's a score-first lead guard, not your old man's kind of point. Wesley Matthews raised his scoring average to 16.4 ppg this season and shot a respectable 39 percent from 3-point range. He's a very good foul- shooter and has logged fairly heavy minutes over the last four seasons.
EDGE: ROCKETS (slightly)
FRONTCOURT: Howard was extremely productive this season with the Rockets. He averaged 18.3 ppg, 12.2 rpg and blocked 1.8 shots per game, which was a low since the 2005-06 season. Superman is the only legitimate rim protector Houston has, but is his ankle completely healthy? Howard played the final three games of the regular season, but he should be fine. Chandler Parsons improved this season and is an essential part of Houston's penetrate and shoot scheme. Terrence Jones emerged and started 71 games this season as the power forward. He scored 12.1 ppg, pulled down almost seven boards a game and shot 54 percent from the field.
Aldridge is an elite performer and posted career-highs in scoring, rebounding and free-throw percentage. He is the leader of this team and a top-15 player in the league. Plus, Aldridge has legitimate playoff experience which is in short supply on this Blazers squad. Nicolas Batum is one of the most underrated guys in the league. With averages of 13.0 ppg, 7.5 rpg and 5.1 apg, very few players produced that much this season. He's a decent defender and a tough opponent. Robin Lopez was a welcome addition for Portland and posted 29 double-doubles. He has the task of stopping Howard and it will be interesting to see if he can a) stay on the floor, and b) not totally sacrifice offensive output in the pursuit of stopping Howard.
EDGE: BLAZERS (slightly)
BENCH: Lin started a lot due to Beverley's injuries and he's beyond capable. Lin is a good shooter, a solid penetrator and he'll be on the floor if Houston needs offense. Omer Asik was injured most of the season and when he wasn't, he was the subject of trade rumors. He played quite a bit when Howard was shelved with the ankle issue. Asik was a double-double machine last season as a starter and he will provide valuable minutes off the bench, although not alongside Howard. Francisco Garcia, Donatas Motiejunas and Jordan Hamilton round out the rotation.
The Blazers had a historically bad bench last season, so literally any production in 2013-14 would be seen as an upgrade. Sure, Portland still finished last in bench scoring, but the addition of Mo Williams made a huge difference. In the last meaningful game of the regular season, an overtime win over the Warriors where Portland's seeding was still on the line, head coach Terry Stotts played only Williams, Thomas Robinson and Dorell Wright. Earl Watson and Will Barton might see some time.
EDGE: ROCKETS (not slightly)
COACHING: McHale won three NBA titles as a Hall of Fame player. He made the postseason last year with the Rockets, but lost in six games as the No. 8 seed to the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Stotts has coached in five postseason games, winning one.
PREDICTION: These are two very similar, very offensive-oriented teams. It's a strong matchup, but this might come down to depth, stars and experience. Houston dominates almost all of those factors. Yes, Portland has Aldridge and Lillard, but Harden and Howard are better. The Blazers' role guys in the starting lineup are very, very good players, but with only two gentlemen on the roster with any playoff experience, this might be a tough road for Portland. One thing in the Blazers' favor is they're riding a five-game winning streak into the postseason. Houston has been a little shaky, but they should get enough from Harden and Howard.
SPORTS NETWORK PREDICTION: ROCKETS in SEVEN.
04/18 13:23:16 ET