Trail Blazers Vs. Rockets Preview
March 9, 2014
The Houston Rockets have been the NBA's best team over the last five weeks, and they've been particularly unbeatable at home.
They'll try to make it eight straight at the Toyota Center and 15 of 17 overall Sunday night against the Portland Trail Blazers in the final regular-season meeting between a pair of powers that could meet again in Round 1 of the playoffs.
The Rockets (43-19) are an NBA-best 14-2 since Jan. 28, the day they beat San Antonio to begin their current home winning streak. With a win over the Trail Blazers (42-20), that run will be the franchise's longest at home since Nov. 24-Dec. 27, 2010.
Houston added a third heavyweight to its recent list of victims on Friday, blasting Indiana 112-86 to hand the Eastern Conference leaders their worst loss of the season.
The Pacers' 86 points were the fewest allowed in a Rockets victory since they held Golden State to 83 on Dec. 6. Houston outscored Indiana by a combined 65-32 in the first and third quarters.
"I believe that if our defense is great for the rest of the season we have a great opportunity to do something special," Dwight Howard said. "We've got to learn from tonight's game and how we played on the defensive end and try to do that every night."
Combined with Portland's 103-98 loss at Dallas, the Rockets jumped a game ahead of the Trail Blazers in the West standings to third. With the Los Angeles Clippers right in the mix for a top-three spot as well, Houston and Portland could wind up squaring off in a 4-5 matchup in Round 1.
That means Sunday's matchup could determine which team has home-court advantage should that series come to fruition. A Rockets victory would give them a head-to-head tiebreaker by virtue of winning three of four meetings.
Howard has averaged 28.3 points and 14.0 rebounds while shooting 66.0 percent in the first three, though it was Chandler Parsons (31 points, 10 rebounds, seven assists) who led the way in Houston's 126-113 home win Jan. 20.
James Harden had 22 in that victory and has averaged 29.6 as the Rockets have won four of the last five in this series.
The Blazers' struggles against Houston certainly can't be pinned on LaMarcus Aldridge. The three-time All-Star has averaged 28.4 points and 14.8 boards in the last five against the Rockets, going for 31 points and a career-high 25 rebounds in a win Dec. 12 before posting 27 and 20 in January's loss.
Aldridge bounced back from a 1-for-13 shooting effort in a win over Atlanta on Wednesday by putting up 30 points and 17 boards Friday, when the Blazers recovered from a 30-point second-quarter deficit but couldn't hang on.
"(It's frustrating) being right there and not taking care of business down the stretch," Aldridge said. "Fighting all the way back and being up and having an opportunity to win and not taking care of business."
The Blazers have surrendered 115.3 points per game against Houston this season, but they've been much better at the defensive end of late. Portland has given up just 93.8 points per game while going 6-2 over its last eight, limiting opponents to 40.5 percent shooting while posting a plus-6.5 rebound differential.
The Rockets have outrebounded the Blazers 147-119 in the season series.
Among the many reasons for Houston's recent success is its ability to share the ball. The Rockets have assisted on nearly 60 percent of their field goals since the All-Star break, up from a 54.5 percent mark before the break that was the league's fourth-worst.
"Earlier in the year I thought there were times when we played against teams that played that same sort of stacked defense and everybody took an extra dribble instead of letting the ball fly, or they would drive in and take a tough shot as opposed to driving in and kicking it out," coach Kevin McHale said. "That's part of the improvement of our team: we're doing a much better job of making the extra pass and the guys are enjoying it and they're enjoying each other."
The Rockets, who had 27 assists in their latest game against Portland, are 24-4 when they record at least 22.