Posted Apr 17, 2014 9:19 AM
Bring your hard hat to this series. And maybe an abacus, too.
You'll need some fallout protection once the 3-point happy Portland Trail Blazers and Houston Rockets start firing away in a series primed to be the highest scoring of the first-round matchups.
The Rockets take and make more shots from behind the arc than any team in the league. The Blazers rank third and fourth in those categories Oh, they'll both give lip service to defense. And the team that can do a serviceable job there when things get tight will probably prevail.
But, clearly, the Rockets and Blazers are offense-first teams that sit squarely in the mediocre middle at putting on the clamps. That makes observers wonder about their true credentials as championship contenders.
"I came to Houston to win championships," said center Dwight Howard. "I didn't say anything about building or waiting or taking my time. I don't think there is any reason for us to wait. We had a period of learning, of getting to know one another at the beginning of the season. Now the playoffs are here and I'm ready to go."
However, with injuries to Howard and Patrick Beverley, the Rockets staggered to the finish line in the regular season and barely claim home-court advantage here.
The Blazers were the talk of the league when they zoomed out of the starting gate and were still sitting pretty at 41-18 on March 1. But a fall that sidelined All-Star forward LaMarcus Aldridge fueled a late tailspin that ultimately cost them home-court advantage and even brought out rumors about the job status of coach Terry Stotts. When Aldridge returned, the Blazers rallied and closed strong. Yet for a team that won 54 games, there is still something to prove and an unsettled air.
1. Is Dwight Howard healthy? After sitting out for two weeks and missing eight games with a strained left ankle, the All-Star center says he's fully recovered and ready to re-establish himself in the middle at both ends of the floor. If that's true, Howard is the one who tips the scales.
2. Can the Rockets slow LaMarcus Aldridge? Maybe it's not necessary. The Blazers' power forward averaged 26.8 ppg and 15.5 rpg and twice pulled down at least 20 boards against the Rockets in the regular season. But it didn't stop Houston from taking a 3-1 win in the series.
3. Who's on the spot for the Blazers? Wesley Matthews will have his hands full trying to stop James Harden from scoring by the dozens. The bearded one dropped 41 and 33 on Portland already this season.
4. What's a matchup that could cause fireworks? Keep an eye on point guards Damian Lillard and Patrick Beverley. The two of them have mixed it up in the past with Lillard calling Beverley a dirty player.
5. What does a Blazers win sound like? Bang! Bang! Bang! The NBA's best rebounding team needs to hammer away on the boards.
They want to get down the floor quickly and take the first look inside to Howard for an easy bucket in the low post. He's gotten more comfortable and become more effective as the season has progressed. Then it's keeping the ball on the move for their many 3-point shooters or to create a lane for the virtually unstoppable Harden going to the hoop.
The Blazers have to get back in transition to prevent too many easy baskets by Howard. Ideally, they can close off the paint and passing lanes and get the Rockets to play 1-on-1 instead of sharing the ball.
They're right behind the Rockets in terms of taking and making 3-pointers. When the long bombs are falling, they can be almost unstoppable. The fifth-ranked offense in the league will get the ball to Aldridge to the left of the basket and let him go to work when Lillard and Matthews aren't slashing to the hoop.
The Rockets will have Howard, power forward Terrence Jones and backup center Omer Asik constantly protecting the rim and trying to turn the Portland offense into a H-O-R-S-E game behind behind the 3-point arc.
When the clock is running down and the game is on the line, the Rockets will put the ball in Harden's hand and let him go to the hoop and draw fouls. He's the best closer in the game today.
While Aldridge is the workhorse of the offense that carries the Blazers throughout the game, Lillard has the nerve and the knack and history for coming through late.
At the start of the 2012-13 season, Beverley was toiling away in Russia. Now he's the teeth of the Rockets' perimeter defense and gives them an attitude and an edge.
Nicolas Batum continues to be an enigma, either careless and nonchalant with the ball or a do-it-all marvel who can take over a game and lift the Blazers to a new level.
The statistics and the seedings say this should be a high-scoring, entertaining and evenly matched series. Both teams have a pair of All-Stars and both can fill up the basket. A healthy Howard is the difference-maker around the rim. Rockets in 6.
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