Running The Break: April 18, 2014

by Casey Holdahl
Follow @chold

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How should the Trail Blazers defend Dwight Howard? Who are the X-Factors? What team wins the series and in how many games? Six local reporters who eat, sleep, and breathe Trail Blazers basketball give their take in this week's edition of Running The Break.

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1. To put it simply, Dwight Howard has been a monster this year when facing the Trail Blazers. In four games against Portland, the eight-time All-Star is averaging 25.5 points, on 63.3-percent shooting, 13.5 rebounds, 1.8 blocks, and 1 steal. Should the Blazers send double-teams at Howard, forcing Houston’s outside shooters to beat them from beyond the arc, or defend him one-on-one?

Casey Holdahl (@Chold), TrailBlazers.com: I think you at least start by having Robin Lopez defend Dwight Howard one-on-one and see how it goes. Lopez is able to slow Howard down even in the slightest, I think you stick with it. The Rockets have too many threats on the perimeter to get away with throwing double teams at Howard regularly, though I'm sure you'll see the Trail Blazers send a second defender situationally. I just think you're better off staying home on James Harden, Chandler Parsons and Terrence Jones than you are trying to force Howard into turnovers and bad shots with double teams.

Chris Haynes (@ChrisBHaynes), CSNNW.com: The way, in which players are stroking the outside shot nowadays, you’d rather give up a contested inside shot than a wide-open three-point shot, especially when talking about the shooters Houston has at its exposal. The same goes for Portland and the way LaMarcus Aldridge will probably be played. Unless Howard is dominating the offensive end and Portland finds itself trying to climb a huge deficit, that’s when it’s probably time to send a double. I expect the Trail Blazers to mix it up when bringing help, keeping Howard guessing. But I would think the plan is to play him straight up, for the most part.

Erik Gundersen (@BlazerBanter), The Columbian: The best option defensively would be that the Blazers just let Lopez take his lumps against Dwight and not to double-team. Dwight's post-ups and his play against Portland will likely be a concern but Portland would be best served playing straight up and not letting three-point shooters or cutters off the ball beat them. For my money, the Blazers are better off with the ball in Dwight's hands than in the hands of James Harden.

Mike Acker (@mikeacker), Willamette Week: The question of how to defend Dwight Howard is basically the key to the series. It makes sense to send double teams at him to keep him from getting easy baskets, but Houston has a ton of great shooters and they will make the Blazers pay if they are left open. So defending Dwight one-on-one might be the way to go, but the Blazers need Robin Lopez on the court. Robin’s going to pick up a lot of fouls going one-on-one with Dwight. Lopez is too valuable for that. If it were my game to plan, I would say make Dwight beat you from the free throw line. The problem with the Hack-a-Dwight strategy is that coaches don’t commit to it long enough. If Dwight makes a free throw or too, you shouldn’t stop fouling him, you should keep fouling him, math says that if he makes four in a row then at some point later in the game he is going to miss four in a row. Making Dwight consistently make free throws is the way to beat Houston.

Dave Deckard (@blazersedge), BlazersEdge: I don’t think you can pick one or the other. Playoff series involve multiple adjustments. As soon as something works the other team counters it. You can’t get caught playing yesterday’s strategy. You have to anticipate how the opponent will adjust, keeping a step ahead of him. The Blazers will likely start out single-covering Howard but they may have to adapt in-game depending on how Houston’s shooters fare. I’ll be surprised if their Game 3 strategy looks the same as in Game 1.

SlyPokerDog (@SlyPokerDog), RipCityTwo.com: You have to do a little of both. Mix it up a little to throw him off of his game as best as you can. Also if Lopez gets into foul trouble you’re going to have to do it because Freeland while a good defender is not going to be able to handle Howard.

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2. Nicolas Batum said his matchup against Chandler Parsons can be the key to the series. Is the Small Forward battle the ultimate X-Factor in deciding which team will survive and advance?

Holdahl: It is if all the other position battles play out like everyone thinks they will. If you have Lillard over Beverley, Harden over Matthews, Aldridge over Jones and Howard over Lopez, it's natural to think that the one agreed upon "push" in this series is Batum vs. Parsons. In four games this season, Parsons has been the better player, but that will need to change if the Blazers are to have a chance in this series. I think the Rockets can beat the Blazers even if Batum beats Chandler in the head-to-head (inasmuch as head-to-head matchups exist in basketball), but I don't think Portland can beat Houston if Parsons outplays Batum.

Haynes: It’s an important matchup. An intriguing one. The ultimate? Not sure about that. There are matchups galore in this series. If Nicolas Batum can outplay Chandler Parsons, no doubt about it, it gives the Trail Blazers a leg up. How Damian Lillard reacts to a rowdy playoff atmosphere and a pesky defender will be key, as the team surely needs him to play well to be successful. It’s going to be fun to see which matchup is truly key.

Gundersen: No. As much as it's a good thing that Batum knows his match-up is important, it won't be the deciding factor. Which team commits to playing defense and which one can defend the three-point line with consistency is what I think will ultimately decide this series. The Blazers have struggled with transition defense all year although they have improved as the season has progressed. The Rockets allow the sixth-most three-point attempts per game in the league and Portland's ball movement can exploit the lackluster rotations from Houston's wings, James Harden and Chandler Parsons in particular. Beverley will get out to shooters at the point of attack, whether it be Mo Williams or Lillard but the second, third and fourth pass is where Portland can get good looks. They just have to make them. The Blazers also must limit the trips to the foul line for Harden, which is much easier said than done.

Acker: I think more than anything it’s going to come down to a battle of the benches. The team with the most consistent reserves will win the series because a consistent reserve unit means solid rest for the starters. Both Houston and Portland are going to ride their starting five. Over the course of what could be a long and physical series heavy minutes for the starters could be a real issue. So the bench is my x-factor. As for the Nicolas Batum/Chandler Parsons match-up, in my opinion it goes two ways. If the Blazers make Chandler Parsons beat them, that means Dwight Howard and James Harden are not beating them. That’s a good thing. That doesn’t mean Nicolas Batum doesn’t need to focus on stopping Chandler Parsons, but Chandler Parsons isn’t going to beat the Blazers by himself. The other thing with Batum is that he needs to show up on offense, and here is where the match-up gets interesting. If Batum takes it on himself to outscore Chandler Parsons every night, the Blazers’ offense will be that much better.

Deckard: If you qualify “X-Factor” as “thing that’s not so important but could develop”, then yes. But if you start ranking factors in terms of absolute importance, Batum on Parsons sits way down the list. Houston will run the ball through Harden, Howard, and Beverley/Lin before they start asking Parsons to go one-on-one versus Nic. How the Blazers and Batum run their help/rotation defense will be far more important than any mano-a-mano contest between the small forwards. To the extent that Parsons becomes significant (and he could!) it’ll be playing off of his teammates. His success, or lack thereof, probably won’t have much to do with Batum’s individual defense.

SlyPokerDog: Batum will be a big part of it. The Blazers will need a motivated and engaged Batum to win but the X-Factor of the series will be Lillard. If he can handle the pressure of Beverley while still scoring the Blazers will be in good shape.

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3. In Portland’s lone victory over Houston this season LaMarcus Aldridge went off for 31 points (12-22 FG) and 25 rebounds in 41 minutes of action. Does Aldridge need to play at that level over the course of the series for the Trail Blazers to move on in the postseason?

Holdahl: I don't think Aldridge has to put up 30+ points and 20+ rebounds a night for the Trail Blazers to win four games, but it certainly wouldn't hurt. What Aldridge needs to do is play well enough at the start of the series to make the Rockets at least consider double teaming him in the post. The Rockets don't mind giving up midrange shots and Aldridge doesn't mind taking them, so if he's as dialed in to start the playoffs as he was to start the regular season, Portland stands a great chance of an upset.

Haynes: He has to play near that level. Averaging around 31 and 25 in a series is tough to do. But I can see LaMarcus Aldridge getting big numbers if Houston elects not to send doubles. They may leave Terrence Jones and others on an island, hoping Aldridge settles for a healthy dose of turnaround jumpers that clank more times than go in. Being an efficient scorer is what’s going to make the difference. If Aldridge is getting those numbers with a high field goal percentage, then yes, he can potentially will his team to the next series.

Gundersen: Yes. Dwight Howard and James Harden are going to be on that level. Aldridge has been great against Houston this season and they'll need him to play at his best. Frankly, they are going to need Damian Lillard to do the same if they are really going to have a chance because Harden and Howard know what time it is.

Acker: Basically yes. But it’s not just LA who needs to play at a high level for Portland to succeed. Every Blazer needs to have a great series for Portland to win. That being said, the same is true for the Rockets. Portland lost to Houston at home in a game where Meyers Leonard had to guard Dwight Howard for extended stretches, and lost to Houston on the road in an overtime game that got to overtime after James Harden willed in a three-pointer at the end of regulation. The Rockets are not that much better than the Blazers. If Houston thinks they are going to run away with this series, they’re wrong. Everybody on both teams needs to play great, so it’s going to be a great series.

Deckard: There’s no way he can play at that level for 4-7 games, so the Blazers better hope not! But Aldridge is Portland’s key advantage. He’s averaged 27 points and 16 rebounds against the Rockets this year, well above his overall marks. Damian Lillard, by contrast, is averaging 19 points and 5 assists, slightly below his usual pace. Lillard also shoots 39% against Houston, well below normal. Throw in Lillard’s defensive struggles and you realize that if Aldridge doesn’t spearhead Portland’s attack they’ll have a hard time gaining a firm beachhead. The Blazers will depend on contributions from different players each night, but LaMarcus provides the foundation that makes those contributions count.

SlyPokerDog: Yes. Our all-star needs to play at an all-star level for this team to advance to the second round. This series is on him. He asked Olshey for a center, he publicly stated he wanted to get back to the playoffs. We’re here. Now it’s up to him.

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4. Name two reserves (one from each team) that could have an unexpected impact on the outcome of the series:

Holdahl: I don't know that either would be unexpected, but I'll go with Thomas Robinson for the Trail Blazers and Omer Asik for the Rockets. Asik only played in two games against the Trail Blazers this season and was mostly a non-factor, but now that he's healthy and willing to accept a role off the bench, he presents a lot of problems for Portland's second unit, which lacks size compared to Houston.

As for Robinson, he's distilled his game down to what he does best and has mostly cut out the rest. He's played arguably the best basketball of his still young NBA career in the last two months and is hitting jumpers in or near the paint with some consistency. Energy off the bench is one of Robinson's greatest strengths, and playing against the team that most recently traded him is sure to add a little fuel to T-Rob's fire.

Haynes: Aside from Mo Williams, Portland’s best player on the bench, I’d have to go with Dorell Wright. He’s been here before and is not afraid of the moment. I think he has a couple a big games in store with his ability to guard bigger players and spread the court. Omer Asik doesn’t get the playing time he’d get on most teams, but he’s a force. When Dwight Howard goes out, which means Robin Lopez will probably exit with him; no other Portland reserve can reasonably match up with Asik. He’ll have a clear advantage over the likes of Joel Freeland and Meyers Leonard. Those are two reserves to keep an eye on.

Gundersen: Jeremy Lin and Mo Williams but I don't know how unexpected that really is.

Acker: I want to say Will Barton for the Blazers since he’s got a real “rise to the occasion” mentality, but I doubt he’ll actually get that much run. Because of that, I’m going to say Dorell Wright. After dropping all the way out of the rotation for awhile, Wright has really come on in the second half, and surprisingly it’s been by doing things like rebounding and getting assists. This series might come down to which team hits more threes, and Dorell is the kind of player who can come off the bench ice cold and hit five threes it two minutes. Something like that might happen.

For the Rockets… Terrance Jones is a starter, but he could be an impact player nobody is expecting much from. How about Omer Asik? If he plays, he’ll be a tough cover for Thomas Robinson and/or Joel Freeland. Probably an unexpected impact of a player like Asik is that he’ll absorb at least a couple fouls from Robinson and/or Freeland, fouls the Blazers are going to desperately need to use on Dwight Howard, fouls that Robin Lopez can afford to give up to Dwight Howard.

Deckard: For the Blazers you have to look at Thomas Robinson and maybe Dorell Wright. They may need to play small-ball against Howard and Omer Asik. Those two have the potential to make the Houston bigs run around. For the Rockets you have to look at Jeremy Lin going up against Portland’s point guards, plus his potential to hit outside shots off of the play of the stars.

SlyPokerDog: Mo Williams for the Blazers, his deep playoff experience will be invaluable for the team and could end up being the series 2nd MVP behind LaMarcus.

Jeremy Lin for the Rockets, with Beverley being seriously banged up he will to play longer minutes and get the ball to his scorers.

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5. Lastly, who wins the series and in how many games?

Holdahl: I truly think this series is a coin flip. And while I'd rather not give a prediction, I'll go with the most coin flip answer and say the Rockets in seven games, with Houston winning Game 7 in overtime by one point. That's as close as a series can get to a draw.

Haynes: I got the Houston Rockets in six. But I have the right to change my prediction once the series ends.

Gundersen: Houston in 7. I think Houston's ability to get to the foul line when they need points is something the Blazers will have a tough time replicating in the final game, especially at home. Blazers fans and most non-Houston may not like James Harden for the way he creates contact but it's part of the game and he might be the best at it in the NBA. I think it's that ability that I think tips the scales in Houston's favor.

Acker: This question should really be, how big of a homer are you? I’m a pretty big homer, so I think Portland has a decent shot to take the series. I do think this is going to be a long series, but getting a game seven is the last thing the Blazers should want. A game seven means that either Portland dropped a game at home, or has only one shot to win their first road game of the series. So here’s what I think, the Blazers steal one of the first two in Houston and then defend home. Blazers in 6. And I fully admit to being a homer.

Deckard: Those matchup problems are tough for Portland. Houston in 6.

SlyPokerDog: This series will go the distance with the Blazers winning it on the road.