The Portland Trail Blazers aren't quite the offensive juggernaut/title contender that they looked to be in a roaring 22-4 start to the season, but make no mistake, they're lurking as a team that could make some noise in the playoffs.
Portland is banged up, but it's also been fairly stingy on defense lately and still has the offensive rebounding and outside shooting to give a team headaches in the postseason. Certain teams, anyways.
The Western Conference side of the playoffs is basically one big game of “Rock, Paper, Scissors.” It's all about drawing the right matchup. And the one team, above all others, that the Trail Blazers do not want to see in the playoffs is...the Houston Rockets. The team they're currently slated to meet in the first round. Yikes.
There may be better teams than the Rockets out West, but none of them are as uniquely equipped to give Portland problems on the defensive end.
Houston is scoring more efficiently against Portland than pretty much any team in the league, and its two stars have rolled through the Blazers defense. Just take a look at James Harden and Dwight Howard's numbers against Portland.
|Harden (vs. Portland)||30.3||7.3||5.3||64.1|
|Harden (season averages)||24.8||4.6||5.7||61.6|
|Howard (vs. Portland)||25.5||13.5||1.8||65.7|
|Howard (season averages)||18.6||12.4||1.8||59.8|
That's some scary stuff. As Grantland's Zach Lowe recently detailed, the Blazers defense is designed to take away three-pointers at the expense of giving up more looks at the rim. Houston's offense is designed to get a ton of shots from deep and at the rim.
The results are what you'd expect—the Rockets are shooting just 32 percent from deep against the Blazers, but they're scoring over 56 points per game in the paint. Houston's also feasting on the offensive glass, grabbing around a third of its misses against Portland.
A lot of Rockets fans are (quite fairly) unhappy that the majority of Howard's touches come from the low block instead of in what should be a lethal Harden-Howard pick-and-roll combo. But against the Blazers, those looks have been dynamite. Houston is shooting 58 percent (!!) on post-ups against Portland, per Synergy Sports Technology (subscription required).
Robin Lopez has been great for the Blazers this season, but he doesn't have the strength or speed to hang with Howard. Howard can literally move him around in the paint, and even when he's really humming, Portland has been hesitant to send help.
Houston's wings cause similar problems. Again, Portland opts to protect against corner threes instead of packing the paint, and Harden in particular has taken advantage of that. The Rockets are taking and making a huge chunk of shots at the rim against Portland, and even worse, they're drawing a ton of fouls in the process.
The Blazers are typically great at avoiding fouls, but they've sent the Rockets to the free-throw line far too often. Even worse, they're not set up to take advantage of Houston's turnover problems. Portland's conservative scheme rarely forces turnovers, limiting one of the easiest ways to attack Houston on the other end.
Unfortunately for the Blazers, things don't look all that much better against Houston on the offensive end.
Despite what Howard's presence might have you think, the best way to attack the Rockets is at the rim. Opponents are shooting nearly 61 percent in the restricted area against the Rockets, and 48 percent even when Howard is around the basket, an unusually high number against a defender of Howard's caliber.
But the fault doesn't lie with Howard so much as it does with Houston's perimeter players.
Patrick Beverley is the only steady defender among the starters, and even he is prone to gambling too much. Chandler Parsons is inconsistent at best, and Harden is...Harden-ish (though he's not usually that horrendous). As a result, Howard is left on an island to deal with a lot of unhindered shots at the rim.
Portland doesn't really have the personnel to take advantage of that. The Blazers have scored the NBA's third-lowest amount of points in the paint, and a good chunk of the shots they do get at the rim come from offensive rebounds or LaMarcus Aldridge post-ups. And as Lowe wrote, those have been pretty ineffective over the last few months.
The “jump-shooting team” label is a tired one, but it fits the Blazers better than most teams. Portland has taken more threes and more mid-range jumpers than they have shots at the rim, and Houston defends both of those areas well. The Rockets are aggressive against pick-and-rolls in order to force opposing bigs into tough mid-range jumpers like this:
Unfortunately for the Blazers, that shot is Aldridge's bread and butter. Aldridge has taken more mid-range jumpers than the entire Rockets squad and has hit 42 percent of them. That's a passable number, but not nearly good enough to justify it being such a big part of the offense, even if it does open up outside shots for Portland's wings.
Aldridge has put up some big numbers against the Rockets, but that's more a result of him averaging nearly 24 shots in those games than anything else—he's posting a true shooting percentage of just 50 percent against them.
To be fair, Portland can take advantage of a few mismatches against Houston.
For example, Damian Lillard's pick-and-roll three game could give the Rockets (who sometimes struggle defending above-the-break threes) problems. And as much as they've failed to secure defensive rebounds, the Blazers have done well on the offensive glass against the Rockets. Still though...not a ton to work with here.
Like quite literally every playoff team in the West, the Blazers are going to be a handful in April. They're more than capable of winning a series—or even multiple series—if everything breaks right. Even a series against the Rockets.
With that being said, though, the Rockets are the worst-case scenario for the Blazers. Portland fans shouldn't exactly be cheering for their team to lose games, but let's just say it wouldn't be the worst thing if they happened to get passed in the standings.