Offense meets offense when the Houston Rockets host the Portland Trail Blazers Monday night.
That's what happens when two teams with myriad scoring weapons go head-to-head in the Western Conference, where the pace is lickety-split and the box scores are brimming with volume scorers.
In each of the first two meetings between these teams, the victor exceeded 110 points, a normal occurrence for both, and one likely to repeat itself in a mutual quest to take a season-series lead. And while their records suggest one title contender is in better shape than the other, the tape tells us differently.
|Portland Trail Blazers||Houston Rockets|
|Opponent's Field-Goal Percentage||45.6||43.6|
Both Houston and Portland are great teams in their own right, and the distance between them isn't as great as the standings would suggest.
But neither team is without its flaws, and being of the more unproven powerhouses in the league, both the Rockets and Blazers are still looking to validate their authenticity—a mutual pursuit that continues here.
Time: Monday, Jan. 20, 8 p.m. ET
Location: Toyota Center, Houston, Texas
Portland Trail Blazers
No injuries reported.
Omer Asik out (knee), Patrick Beverley probable (hand), Francisco Garcia out (knee) and Greg Smith questionable (knee).
How Portland Wins
Portland's commitment to defense has been maddening at best this season, parting like the Red Sea on cue. The Blazers rank 20th in defensive efficiency, allowing an average of 107.2 points per 100 possessions.
Until now, their offense has carried them atop the Western Conference, checking in at first in offensive efficiency, spouting off point-totaling outbursts at a rate of 114.1 points per 100 possessions. Against a similarly potent Rockets offense, they must hope their attack is more powerful and precise.
The Blazers have allowed fewer than 100 points 14 times this season—all wins. Only three of those occasions came when facing Top 10 offenses, and against the Rockets, specifically—who rank 6th in offensive efficiency—they've allowed an average of 110 points in two meetings, through which they're 1-1.
In each of those games, the Blazers sank or swam by their offense. They allowed 116 points the first time around and lost, then followed that up with 111 points of their own in the second meeting and won.
At this point, the Blazers are who they are—a lucratively cogent offensive team, capable of befuddling defenses by varying pace and scoring options, who simply cannot defend. That's not going to change, especially against the Rockets.
Scoring 110 or more points has to be the goal or the magic number, if you will. Houston has allowed 110 or more points 10 times this season, tied for seventh most in the league, and is 2-8 on those occasions. Portland, by comparison, has dropped 110 points 18 times, tied for most in the NBA, and is a near-perfect 17-1 in those instances.
Damian Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge are both averaging more than 20 points a night, and their routinely gaudy outings, partnered with the starting lineup's general volume scoring, is what has kept this team on the up and up.
Offense carried the Blazers to their first victory over the Rockets. Drumming up the score has left them tied for the Western Conference's best record. Following that exact same blueprint, however precarious, is how they're going to win in Houston.
How Houston Wins
Harden and Howard combined for 62 points in the Rockets' first game against the Blazers (a win) and a similarly impressive 57 points in the second meeting (a loss). When both stars are scoring, there's little preventing the Rockets from emerging victorious.
We're still trying to figure out ways to play among each other. But I'm sure we'll figure it out. I haven't played with a big man as dominant and as athletic as Dwight. He draws so much attention under the basket. I like to get to the basket. I'm still trying to get adjusted to him being under the rim. Once I figure it out and we get it rolling, we're going to be a problem.
But as we saw, when the Rockets notched just 19 points in the second half of a terrible loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder, Harden, Howard and the rest of the team aren't inoculated against cold streaks.
The Rockets had 32 in the first quarter, 41 in the second quarter. They had 10 in the third, and just nine in the fourth. Wow.— Royce Young (@royceyoung) January 17, 2014
Oklahoma City's read-and-react defense deserves much of the credit for that historically inept offensive episode, but Houston still managed to hoist up 36 shots in the second half, only four less than the Thunder.
What drugs did the Rockets do at halftime? Xanax chased with NyQuil?— Tom Ziller (@teamziller) January 17, 2014
Portland's defense isn't Oklahoma City's defense, and the Rockets regained composure soon after with a 10-point win over the league-worst Milwaukee Bucks, suggesting their mishap was something of an anomaly. But even if it wasn't, they need a combination of Harden and Howard, and defense, to win this one.
Howard has turned the once-porous Rockets into a middling defensive team. They rank 14th in defensive efficiency and have shown they can win the occasional slugfest. So their main priority has to be slowing Portland's top-ranked offense.
We watched on Dec. 12 as they finished with a plus-eight in transition and plus-30 in the paint against Portland, and still lost 111-104. Aided by 30 free-throw attempts and 15 offensive rebounds, the Blazers offense, like it usually does, found ways to score.
Much like you can count on their defense to yo-yo between unreliable and bumbling, you can bet their offense will do damage. Throw a wrench of any kind into their ability to maintain their 109.6 points per game average, and the Blazers become vulnerable—flawed by their very offense-first, defense-hardly-ever dynamic.
Finding a way to hold them to under 105 or (preferably) less almost ensures victory. The Rockets are 22-4 when allowing opponents to register 105 or fewer points, giving them a magic number of their own.
When so many similarities exist between two teams, it often comes down to which outfit can better succeed outside their comfort zone. In this case, we're talking defense.
Neither Portland nor Houston boasts a defensive-minded attack, forcing both to depend heavily on the production of two primary scorers. But it's not offense alone that will decide the outcome here.
Having a deeper bench—helped along by Beverley's probable return, whether he starts or comes off the pine—favors the Rockets. Having a starting five that doesn't quit favors the Blazers. And yet, it's the ability to disrupt the opponent's advantages on the less glamours side of the floor that's worth more.
Portland has already proved it's not going to ride the coattails of an uncharacteristically lockdown performance to victory. Offense is the only way it can win.
The Rockets, while far from stout defensively, have a vocal Howard who has, at times, looked like he could be headed for his fourth Defensive Player of the Year award. Playing at home—where they allow 97.9 points per game—gives them an inherent edge, but it's Howard that gives them the ultimate one.
Which team will win this Western Conference-power matchup?
Stars from either side are going to score. Harden, Lillard, Howard, Aldridge—all of them. Defensive miscues will also frequent the hardwood, and the final score will reflect the gravity of this offensive matchup.
But the Blazers are too one-dimensional. Posting the fourth-worst defensive rating of any playoff team won't allow them to fare well when the stakes are higher and the opponent tougher.
Makeshift identities will prevail when tantamount offenses face one another, giving the Rockets—a mediocre defensive team—a strong chance of pulling off the upset over their fellow Western Conference power.
Rockets 110, Blazers 103