The NBA's Western Conference is full of teams that like to run, and the Portland Trail Blazers and Houston Rockets are no exception. Both teams face off at the Toyota Center on Feb. 8, and the Rockets will be seeking their first win of the season against young and feisty Portland squad.
Houston has lost to the Blazers twice already this season, both times in overtime. Head coach Kevin McHale hopes that will not be the case tonight, as Houston has gone 17-8 at home. Moreover, the Rockets hold the No. 8 spot in the Western Conference, just one game ahead of Portland.
Led by rookie Damian Lillard, Portland will be looking to pick apart Houston from the get-go, running and driving its way to victory against the Rockets' porous defense. Similarly, Houston will want to use its more balanced run-and-gun game to make the Blazers look young and inexperienced.
The adrenaline is sure to be pumping from start to finish, and it should make for a great game for all NBA fans to enjoy.
Time: Friday, Feb. 8, 8 p.m. EST
TV: CSN Houston, CSN Northwest HD
Records: Portland Trail Blazers (25-24) vs. Houston Rockets (27-24)
Betting Line: Not available as of Thursday, Feb. 7, 9:21 a.m. EST
Injuries: Carlos Delfino (elbow, day-to-day), Elliot Williams (Achilles, out), Sasha Pavlovic (foot, day-to-day), Ronnie Price (ankle, out), via ESPN
Key Storyline: Can Houston Solve Portland in Regulation?
The Houston Rockets and Portland Trail Blazers have faced each other twice already this season, and Houston has lost both times. However, both losses are notable and unique.
The Rockets met the Blazers for the first time on Nov. 3, but lost 95-85 in overtime. Both teams shot poorly throughout the game, and Houston made just 35 percent of its field-goal attempts and shot just 19 percent from long range, which is unacceptable for a run-and-gun team.
Thanks to 27 points and 11 rebounds from LaMarcus Aldridge and 20 points and nine assists from Damian Lillard, Portland was able to pull away and outscore Houston 14-4 in the overtime period.
The game was much closer when the two teams met again on Nov. 16, and the Rockets were playing as though they were out for revenge. The team shot 47 percent from the field and 36 percent from downtown, refusing to be embarrassed yet again.
Unfortunately, despite the respectable effort, Houston lost in overtime once again, 119-117, thanks to a combined 91 points scored from Aldridge, Lillard and Nicolas Batum. The Rockets also led by as many as 15 at one point, but just ran out of gas toward the end.
Those two losses hurt, and Houston is going to be ready to play in Round 3. Both teams match up well, and the Rockets will be out to prove that they are the No. 8 team in the highly competitive Western Conference for a reason.
Portland will likely be seeking to use its quick offense to overwhelm Houston, who ranks 27th in points allowed, and seal the season series once and for all. Against a Rockets team out for blood, that could prove to backfire if certain chips fall into place.
Key Matchup: Wesley Matthews vs. James Harden
One thing that the Portland Trail Blazers and Houston Rockets have in common is that both of their shooting guards are incredibly dynamic, from their scoring abilities to their defense. Their unique skill sets will be out in full swing for this game, and each man will be looking to shut the other down.
Let's start with Portland's Wesley Matthews. An undrafted free agent signed by the Utah Jazz out of Marquette in 2009, he has become one of the biggest undrafted sleepers in the history of the game. Not only is Matthews an excellent three-point shooter and overall scorer, but his defense can also be off-the-charts pesky.
This season, Matthews has posted 15.3 points and 1.5 steals per game, and has shot 38 percent from three-point range. He has shown a bit more of a knack for scoring over his last five games, averaging 17.3 points over that stretch as well as two steals.
Unfortunately, when push comes to shove, Matthews is little more than a shooter. Half of his field-goal attempts are threes, and that's going to come back to bite him unless he finds a way to fake out Houston's James Harden.
Unlike Matthews, Harden is a bit more dynamic. He can score and play defense, but he can also be an excellent playmaker.
Since being traded to the Rockets on Oct. 27 and inserted into the team's lineup as the starting shooting guard, Harden has been phenomenal. He has averaged 25.8 points, 5.6 assists, 4.6 rebounds and 1.9 steals per game, and was recently named to his first All-Star team.
The man has been even better over his last five. He has posted 24.2 points, 6.6 rebounds, 6.4 assists and two steals over that stretch, and has shot 53 percent from the field and 50 percent from downtown.
Needless to say, Matthews is going to be in for a long night unless he can mix up his game a bit. Playing lockdown defense on Harden is one thing, but he cannot rely so much on his three-pointer to ensure another Portland victory. He must use his mid-range shot and also drive the lane, though that is out of his comfort zone.
It may not result in the best night, at least percentage-wise, but Matthews has no other choice. Harden is such a well-rounded player, and the only way to beat him is to want the win more than he does.
That must be Matthews' attitude tonight, and then a little extra. Harden is going to look to be in beast mode from start to finish, and it is up to Matthews to neutralize that.
X-Factor: Jeremy Lin
Houston fans were expecting full-blown Linsanity when Jeremy Lin signed with the Rockets over the summer, but have only received it every so often. Lin struggled mightily on offense over the first two months of the season, but has gotten back on track.
The Harvard grad has posted 12.5 points, 6.1 assists and two steals per game this season, and has upped his field-goal percentage to a respectable 43 percent. Lin has also been hot as of late, especially over his last five games.
He has posted just 16.8 points and 6.4 assists over that stretch, but has also shot a highly respectable 54 percent from the field and 50 percent from downtown. Against Portland, he's going to have to dig deep and see if there's any Linsanity left in the tank.
This is because Portland has a dynamic point guard of its own in Damian Lillard. When he starts heating up, it's near-impossible to cool him down.
This means that Lin must be driving the lane and drawing fouls from start to finish. If he has an open shot, be it from mid-range or behind the three-point line, he must take it. If he sees an open teammate, it's time to dish the ball.
Lin needs to be both a scorer and a playmaker tonight. So long as he can find the balance, Houston will have a shot at winning the game.
Predicted Starting Lineups
PG: Damian Lillard
SG: Wesley Matthews
SF: Nicolas Batum
PF: LaMarcus Aldridge
C: J.J. Hickson
PG: Jeremy Lin
SG: James Harden
SF: Chandler Parsons
PF: Patrick Patterson
C: Omer Asik
Portland may have won the first two rounds of this four-round fight, but Houston will make a strong push and win Round 3. Thanks to superior defense and clutch shooting, the Rockets will eke out a tough victory, this time in regulation.
Pick your winner!
James Harden will hit double figures in scoring again, and also dish out his fair share of assists. His defense on Wesley Matthews will be ridiculously pesky, forcing the former Marquette Golden Eagle to chuck up three after three. He'll hit a good number of them, but not enough to swing the pendulum in Portland's favor.
Jeremy Lin will have a point man's double-double, having a good scoring and passing night. He'll be ready to play and match every part of Lillard's game, and his making the important shots late in the third and fourth quarters will seal the victory for Houston.
Throw in some key threes from Chandler Parsons and a double-double for Omer Asik, and the Rockets will definitely enjoy this victory more than some others.
Houston Rockets 105, Portland Trail Blazers 99