Running The Break: April 7, 2014

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How important is Home Court Advantage to the Trail Blazers in the postseason? What team poses the most favorable matchup to Portland? 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. After Portland fell to Phoenix and Houston knocked off Oklahoma City on Friday night, it’s now unlikely (although mathematically possible) the Trail Blazers will catch the Rockets for the No. 4 seed out West. With the said, do the Trail Blazers need Home Court Advantage in order to win a playoff series?

Casey Holdahl (@Chold), TrailBlazers.com: No, they don't. It would probably help, especially for a team with eight players who are on the precipice of their first NBA postseason, but you need to win just one road game to advance as the underdog, and the Blazers have shown this season that they can win away from the Moda Center.

Mike Tokito (@mtokito), The Oregonian: It would be very helpful against the Rockets, who are one of the better home teams (31-8) and have a pedestrian road record (20-17). Really, though, in a 4-5 matchup, I think you can overcome not having home court.

Erik Gundersen (@BlazerBanter), The Columbian: It would be nice but in this year's Western Conference, it matters a lot less.

Mike Acker (@mikeacker), Willamette Week: When the Blazers won 54 games in 2008-09 and hosted the Rockets in the first round of the playoffs, they definitely needed home court advantage to have a chance at the second round. That team was almost unbeatable at home, and was one game under .500 on the road. Home court didn’t help, of course, since Houston came into the Rose Garden and promptly blew out the Blazers in game one and effectively ended the series. However, that was a young team with no meaningful playoff experience that needed the backing of the home fans to win games. This team is a little different. The Blazers’ road record was hurt some in March with those two very difficult road trips, but for the most part, they have bee more than capable of getting big wins away from the Rose City. That’s the long answer. The short answer is no, the Blazers don’t “need” home court to win in the first road.

Dave Deckard (@blazersedge), BlazersEdge: I’m not sure homecourt matters as much as matchups and momentum. If the Blazers are playing confidently they can win on the road. Teams that can exploit Portland’s weak spots will have no trouble with the floor looking a little different as they do so. If the opponent is the Rockets, that’ll be a monumental task for Portland, home or away.

SlyPokerDog (@SlyPokerDog), RipCityTwo.com: Nah, home court would be nice but not necessary. The Blazers just have to get one road game and then defend the court and the series is ours.

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2. For a team that relishes the underdog role and plays their best basketball when they take an “Us Against The World” approach to the game, would the Blazers be better off starting the postseason on the road?

Holdahl: No, they wouldn't. When you have fans like the Trail Blazers do, there's basically no scenario in which you'd rather play anywhere else other than at home. Besides, even with home court, I'm guessing most would still pick the Blazers to lose their first round series, so the underdog mentality would be alive and well.

Tokito: Boy, I don’t know. That’s cute psychology, but there is no team in the NBA that doesn’t play better at home. I don’t think you can manufacture a mindset that’s a bigger advantage than 20,000 screaming fans.

Gundersen: They play better at home but home court advantage guarantees nothing in the playoffs when teams are locked in for the entire 48 minutes. They have had nearly every one of their "come together" moments this season on the road so maybe starting the season on the road will help them have the mental edge that Coach Stotts likes so much.

Acker: To be honest, the first round of the playoffs in the Western Conference are going to be absolutely bananas. For my money, there are at least three series that could go seven games, and depending on which team finishes eighth, all four could go the distance. Does have the added incentive of being considered a contender in November and being basically forgotten come March and April improve the Blazers’ chances? Sure. Are they better off starting the postseason on the road? It wouldn’t hurt to have their first few playoff games in a friendly arena, but I don’t think it’s a deal breaker.

Deckard: That kind of motivation wilts in the playoff spotlight. The post-season is about talent, execution, and those all-important matchup advantages. You might squeak out a series on emotional momentum but if that’s what you’re banking on to carry you through to the Finals, you’ve already lost.

SlyPokerDog: I don't think it matters that much with this team. The team just has to come focused and ready to play.

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3. Earlier in the season the Houston Rockets were viewed by most as the worst possible matchup for the Trail Blazers in the playoffs. While a series against the Rockets seems inevitable with two weeks to go, has your stance changed on possibly facing the Rockets in the First Round?

Holdahl: A little, but only because of injuries to Dwight Howard and Patrick Beverly. There are no easy outs in the West, but the Rockets don't have a ton of playoff experience, at least as a group, and Portland was a last-second three-pointer away from winning the series 3-1, so Houston is about the best of a bunch of bad options.

Tokito: I certainly think the Blazers are better off playing Rockets than they would be any of the teams above them in the West – San Antonio, Oklahoma City and the Clippers. Those three teams are just so much deeper.

Gundersen: Yes. Mostly because Blake Griffin became a destroyer of World's in the second half of the season. The Rockets play really well against good teams but their defensive effort can often waver. The Clippers have shown an ability to lock in defensively late in games and Houston's guards outside of Patrick Beverley aren't exactly great defenders. Dwight Howard isn't what he used to be but is still a force. Even if Beverley is fully healthy, I still think Houston is Portland's best match-up because of their lack of consistency compared to the other teams in the West's top four.

Acker: After watching the way the Blazers played against the Suns a few nights ago, it’s safe to say that Phoenix is a team Portland wouldn’t want to face in the postseason. Since that’s not exactly a situation that’s very likely (the Suns would have to first make the playoffs then beat the Spurs or Thunder and the Blazers would also have to win their first round series for that to happen) I’m going to stick with Houston being the worst matchup for the Blazers in round one.

Deckard: No. It’s bad. Memphis might be worse, but not by much. In the regular season Houston doinked around a lot. They had advantages against the Blazers but didn’t always press them. Over 82 games continuity, pacing, and keeping everybody happy factor in. In a 7-game playoff series against a single opponent teams exploit their edges mercilessly. Houston won’t care a bit about going to Howard or Harden 50 times if necessary. They’ll draw from the well until it runs dry. I don’t see them sweeping the Blazers but Portland taking 4 of 7 against a prepared opponent with that kind of firepower plus a veteran supporting staff? Ouch.

SlyPokerDog: The Rockets are a bit banged up and I think might be a little overconfident concerning the Blazers. The Blazers just need to stay loose and try and steal a road game. I'm more worried about the Blazers staying focused than I am about the Rockets.

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4. If it’s not Houston in the First Round, the other likely scenario would be Los Angeles. Given the choice between the Rockets and the Clippers, which team would the Trail Blazers have a better shot against in the postseason?

Holdahl: The Rockets, for the reasons just mentioned, not to mention that the Clippers have Chris Paul.

Tokito: The Clippers do have some health issues, but I’d still rather face Houston.

Gundersen: Houston. The Clippers are something like a super-charged version of the Blazers with a deeper bench. That's not to say Portland wouldn't have a shot but they haven't been able to slow down the Clippers offensively most of the year. Portland's offense has been great and if their threes fall they can go shot for shot with the Clippers. However, the Clippers are also the more experienced group as this is their core's third consecutive season heading in the playoffs. Doc Rivers' play calling and game-planning is second to only Gregg Popovich's among the teams Portland could possibly face and that's worth something, too. .

Acker: I think the Blazers have an equally good shot against either team. Whether it’s LAC or Houston, the Blazers are not going to be the favorite. Beating either team is going to be a very tall order. It’s not impossible though. Portland has beaten Houston once at home and should have beaten them a second time in a game they lost in overtime in Texas. The Blazers have won and lost against the Clips with a rubber match to be played on the last day of the regular season in Portland. Either series is theoretically winnable. If I had to pick one, though, I’d say LAC is slightly better for the Blazers simply because they’ve won in Los Angeles three times already this season. They haven’t won a game in Houston this season.

Deckard: The Clippers. They’re a better team than Houston overall but the Blazers also match up against them better…or at least have a chance to.

SlyPokerDog: We seem to be circling the same things here, home court advantage, no home court advantage, good match ups and bad match ups, I don't think it really matters that much. The Blazers have the talent and the personnel to beat anyone. In the vast majority of Blazer losses this year it's been because the team has beaten themselves. Bad quarters, slow starts and missed shots, it's mistakes this team has made then it has been about running into a more talented team. When the Blazers play to their strengths they can beat anyone.

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5. If Joel Freeland returns before the playoffs, does Coach Stotts immediately put him in the rotation? If so, what does that mean for players like Thomas Robinson and Dorell Wright who have had success in their current roles lately?

Holdahl: Joe Freeman and I talked a bit about this a few weeks ago the Rip City Report podcast. If Freeland isn't able to get any reps in before the end of the regular season, I think you have to stick with Thomas Robinson and Dorell Wright. Maybe you use Freeland in a pinch, but giving playoff minutes to a guy who hasn't played in months, especially while Robinson is just starting to show some signs of consistency, doesn't seem like a great option for anyone.

Tokito: I don’t think you force him into the rotation fully because guys typically need a few games to get their legs back. But I do think there is a place for Freeland and his six fouls against the Rockets and Dwight Howard, against whom foul trouble will probably be a big factor. Houston plays small a lot, so it’s not like you need Freeland to play 15 minutes, but there will probably be a game or two where Robin Lopez fights foul trouble.

Gundersen: I mean, given that he was able to be so stable before he got hurt and the fact that Terry Stotts showered him with praise following the playoff-clincher last night, I think he plays when he comes back. Freeland wasn't playing because of his offense and he won't need to work himself back into a rhythm on the offensive end to bring what Portland needs. I'm sure there will be a time when they will need the energy of Robinson in the playoffs but if Freeland is healthy, I can't see Stotts not using him. The Robinson-Aldridge combo has seen a lot of successful time recently but playing Aldridge alongside more traditional centers was key to early season success. That goes double for if they are playing Houston because Howard is going to command a lot of attention and probably a lot of fouls as well.

Acker: Joel’s been pretty unlucky. Thomas Robinson and Dorell Wright haven’t been amazing in his absence, but they’ve been serviceable at worst and pretty darn important at best. Freeland earned his minutes and he deserves a shot to get back in the rotation for the playoffs. Unfortunately, the Blazers don’t have the luxury of working Joel back in if it seems like he might need some game reps to get up to speed. Possibly, if the Blazers clinch following their game with NOLA (which is currently happening and will be over once this is being read), and they want to give their regular rotation guys some rest, Joel could see the court and get his sea legs back before the first game of the playoffs. That being said, even when the Blazers clinch, they’re still going to be in a dogfight for their seeding. There just isn’t going to be time to get Joel back into the swing of things. My guess is, we’ve seen all we’ll see from Joel Freeland in 2013-14, which is a bummer because he was a huge reason for Portland’s early success.

Deckard: Let’s define “success”. Zero Trail Blazer bench players have staked a claim to a spot in absolute terms. Some look indispensable but that’s a function of Portland’s thin roster, not talent and production. That’s true of even the best Portland reserves, let alone guys like Robinson and Wright. Performing well for a week does not a season make. This is true of Freeland as well but he’s played more consistently than most. If Coach Stotts believes he can contribute, worrying about bumping somebody else is an unaffordable luxury..

SlyPokerDog: Stotts may not have a choice. After watching Sunday night's game against the Pelicans it's obvious that Meyers Leonard isn't ready. If Lopez gets into foul trouble you have to throw Freeland out there if he's healthy. As far as TRob's and Wright's minutes are concerned I don't see Freeland being added to the rotation changing that much. Along with Barton they have found their role in the rotation.