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Wednesday February 25, 2009 5:51 PM

Sports Writer Smackdown

ESPN.com's Henry Abbott pays up after Houston'

s 98-94 win over Portland

Henry Abbott
ESPN.com Senior Writer (Special to Rockets.com)

Houston - If you listened to this week's podcast on Rockets.com, you already know all about the high stakes surrounding Tuesday night's Rockets-Blazers match-up. Not only was playoff positioning on the line, but Henry Abbott (ESPN.com's TrueHoop basketball blogger and unapologetic Blazers fan) and Rockets.com's Jason Friedman centered that game around their Sports Writer Smackdown - a friendly wager whereupon the loser was forced to write a 500-word column extolling the virtues of the winning team.

True to his word, Abbott delivered the goods after his beloved Blazers fell to Houston 98-94. But did he grovel enough? You be the judge. If not, we can always make him eat a little more crow April 5th - when the two teams renew acquaintances once more.

- JCF

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I lost a bet.

As you know by now, Jason and I had a friendly wager before last night's Houston vs. Portland game. Loser writes 500 words about how great the winner's team is.

I'll tell you something: As judged by the view on my TV set, the Portland Trail Blazers do not like playing the Houston Rockets. The game was played at a high level, but it was ugly. I can't recall a Blazer game with less beauty.

And when that happens, I end up thinking two things. First: What is wrong with Portland tonight? Second: (Duh) Stop watching the ball and the offense, and start focusing on the opponent's defensive effort. Sometimes you then learn that this isn't an ugly offensive game ... it's a beautiful defensive one.

That's 100% what I learned Tuesday night.

Of course, great defenders have not just a willingness to steal your lunch money, but a conviction that it is rightly theirs. While I can't really say who the best player was in last night's game, I can assure you the lunch money all ended up in Ron Artest's pocket.

If there's a persistent criticism of the Portland team, it's that they can be bullied. And in a sense, they were last night. In his stints guarding Brandon Roy, Ron Artest demonstrated not just tremendous size, strength, commitment to defense, but also -- impressively -- a total willingness to be called for a foul. He's not playing to stop you over 48 minutes. He's playing to stop you RIGHT NOW. And, although at stretches in his career he has wavered, he certainly can keep that up all night.

When you play with all that contact, you can kind of re-jigger the referee's barometers. Instead of seeing an isolated act and saying "hey, you can't shove a guy like that" they see multi-faceted whompings and think "that's life in the big city, pal -- there's a lot of contact both ways in this sport."

(One other point about Artest -- he sometimes has terrible judgment on offense. You catch the moment where he apparently decided to atone for turning the ball over by jacking an off-balance, out-of-the-flow of the offense 3? It's like, 'sorry teammates, I made an error in judgment. I'm going to make up for it with even poorer judgment.' The fact that it went in, and was a crucial bucket in a four-point win, does not change my assessment here.)

But Artest's defense is only a third of the story of Houston's defensive package. Chuck Hayes and Shane "MVP of the New York Times Sunday Magazine" Battier are also big, strong, smart, and wholly committed at that end of the floor. The way they played last night, any one of the three would be most teams' best defender. When they all play together, Portland's regular offense (spread the floor with shooters, let Roy create for himself or others) simply does not exist. Where Roy usually finds open seams and opener shooters, instead there are about six people wrestling with each other all over the floor, and the only easy shots come from first turning tail and running a yard or two away from the big bad Rockets.

Portland plays at one of the NBA's slowest paces and has one of the NBA's most efficient offenses. So this is a team that knows how to pick apart a well-established defense.

But last night was the first time all season I, as a viewer, found myself saying: "Well, if they're going to play defense like that, we really ought to run more -- because who wants to face that?"

Granted, the Blazers almost pulled it out anyway. Check out LaMarcus Aldridge's shot chart. He made two of his 13 shots outside the paint, and was open nearly every single time. Those are good shots for him, and on a different night, maybe half of them fall and Portland gets another close win over Houston.

It wasn't to be, though, and I don't wonder why Portland, and Aldridge, might have been a little bit rattled. The Rockets D up, for sure.

They're one more team on the list of teams I wouldn't want to see in the first round.

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