Accurately predicting the outcome of any Western Conference playoff series can feel a lot like trying to catch water using only a strainer.
Talented teams exist in excess out West. Any of the lower seeds are capable of overthrowing their upper-seeded opponents. Rendered decisions are often withdrawn or proven wrong.
The imminent dance-off between the Houston Rockets and Portland Trail Blazers offers no such controversy. Houston has the decisive edge, perhaps more than any Western Conference team will have over another first-round foe.
Battles between No. 4 and No. 5 seeds are often the most difficult to foretell, what with the talent drop-off usually being so insignificant. One look at the standings appears to confirm this year will be no different. No more than two victories will separate the Rockets from the Blazers when all's told, clearing the way for a tightly contested series packed with regular transfers of power.
Held to that standard, the Rockets-Blazers series is going to be a disappointment. There will be no (slight) upset, no mulling Houston's elimination. There will only be the Rockets, asserting their dominance as the superior team by dispatching Portland with more ease than the standings suggest.
No "D" in or Played by the Blazers
Houston and Portland match up well offensively.
Both teams will finish within the top six of offensive efficiency this season—points scored per 100 possessions—according to NBA.com (subscription required). There's no completely erasing either team's firepower. The Rockets and Blazers are going to score points; they're going to get theirs.
But if there's one team more equipped to impede the attack of the other, it's the Rockets. Their defense is still prone to disappearing acts and parting like the seal on a bag of chips—James Harden's commitment to frequently not defending is truly incredible—but it's more effective than Portland's.
While the Rockets rank 12th in defensive efficiency, per NBA.com, the Blazers check in at 17th. Nonexistent preventive measures are going to create problems against a team that's slightly better on offense already.
"The Blazers can score a little bit on Houston (as most teams can) but can't stop them at all," CBS Sports' Matt Moore writes. "Dwight Howard averaged 25.5 points per game vs. Portland, James Harden averaged over 30. This is a nightmare matchup for Portland, at least from the outside."
Individual matchups will put the Blazers at a serious disadvantage. According to TeamRankings.com, they allow 45.8 points in the paint per game. Only the Minnesota Timberwolves (45.9) and Los Angeles Lakers (49.3) allow more. Of the bottom seven teams in that same category, the Blazers are the lone playoff squad.
Almost half of the Rockets' 107.8 points per game (51.1) come in the paint. Theirs is an offense predicated on the dribble-drives of Harden and Jeremy Lin, the interior prowess of Dwight Howard and routine fast-break incursions.
Defending transition isn't the Blazers' forte, not that they have any defensive strengths. They rank in the bottom half of fast-break defense, which poses problems when facing the league's third-most potent transition team. A lot of problems.
The Rockets had their way against the Blazers in four meetings. They shot 47.7 percent from the field as a team, per NBA.com, and even their offensive weaknesses became strengths.
Take Lin, who is often considered a liability for his Harden-esque defense, iffy shot selection and topsy-turvy touch beyond the arc. Through four games against Portland this season, the Rockets were a plus-23 when he was on the floor, according to NBA.com.
When he comes off the bench, he's a weapon. Portland's second unit is awful, a shallow collection of players who make the starting lineup look like group of defensive juggernauts. The Blazers' second unit finished dead last in point differential this season (minus-7.4), per HoopStats.com, just as they did last year.
Relief won't be found in shortened rotations, either. Houston's starters had their way with Portland for most of this season. Chandler Parsons, Howard and Harden are all a combined plus-27 or better against the Blazers. Their only real hope is to run their offense to perfection. Yet the Rockets make even that complicated.
Portland's offense relies on a steady dose of pick-and-rolls and drive-and-kicks to keep order. More than 42 percent of the Blazers' total offensive possessions have come from pick-and-rolls and spot-up opportunities, according to Syngergy Sports (subscription required). The Rockets rank sixth in defense on pick-and-roll ball-handlers and eighth in catch-and-shoot situations.
The Blazers will be forced to milk the roll man within pick-and-rolls. That's where the Rockets are most vulnerable in relation to Portland's offensive strengths. They rank 21st in defense against on said rollers.
That still doesn't give the Blazers enough to work with. There isn't enough offensive creativity in their arsenal to effectively expose the Rockets defense, and they're not consistent enough on the defensive end themselves to adequately respond.
Expect the series outcome to unfold accordingly.
One thing the Blazers absolutely needed to make it past the first round was home-court advantage. They didn't get it.
Really, really, we're-going-to-write-them-off-now bad.
Although their record away from home (23-18) is actually better than the Rockets' (21-19), the latter actually has home-court advantage. That's just as huge for the Rockets as it would have been for the Blazers. Houston is 33-8 on the season at Toyota Center.
When on the road, the Blazers' already horrific defense is markedly worse, putting them at the mercy of a Houston team that tends to score out of its mind when playing at home.
|Home Off. Rtg.||108.9||110.3|
|Home Def. Rtg.||102.7||100.3|
|Home Net. Rtg.||6.2||10|
|Away Off. Rtg.||107.5||106.9|
|Away Def. Rtg.||106.7||105.6|
|Away Net. Rtg.||0.5||1.3|
To really become a viable threat, the Blazers must win one of the first two games in Houston. But with the way they defend on the road coupled with the Rockets' all-world offense at home, the chances of that happening are less than slim.
It's equally plausible the Rockets fail to steal a road victory. They're 1-4 in their last five games outside Houston. This could be one of those series when the team that plays the most home games is the one that wins.
And that team isn't the Blazers.
Let's Go Round 2, Houston
Potential for the Rockets to play abject basketball in Portland aside, the Blazers are in trouble.
Houston owned Portland during the regular season, winning three of four meetings, two of which victories came by at least 13-point margins. The Rockets averaged 116 points through those four contests as well. When they top 115 points, they win 81.8 percent of the time (18-4). And when they top 110 points—less than three points above their season average—they win 88.6 percent of the time (33-5). That they've eclipsed 110 points in nearly half their games this season (38) is concerning for a Blazers defense that hasn't shown it can keep stationary objects from scoring, let alone a constantly driving and slashing Rockets contingent.
Worse still, the Blazers have proved nearly incapable of unsaddling fellow playoff teams since beginning the season 31-9. They're a combined 2-12 against other postseason-bound squads since Jan. 20. Their recent victory over the Golden State Warriors actually snapped a 12-game losing streak against top-eight Western Conference teams.
Nothing about that incites optimism on the Blazers' behalf. They're a shallow faction that's stumbled since spending the first part of this season atop the Western Conference. That's not good enough.
True contenders, truly dangerous playoff teams, don't fall as hard as the Blazers. It's inexcusable that they went from No. 1 to No. 5, even out West. Going as far as saying it's a harbinger of doom isn't even a stretch.
Certain drama will indeed surface throughout this series. Point guards Damian Lillard and Patrick Beverley have beef, the Blazers are looking to reverse plummeting fortunes and the Rockets are hoping to solidify their status among Western Conference powerhouses.
Which team will win this first-round matchup?
Both teams have something to play for. The Rockets are simply furnished with the balance and consistency necessary to extend their season, noticeably more so than the one-dimensional Blazers.
"I have to go out there and be myself," Lillard told CSNNW's Chris Haynes of facing Houston and Beverley. "That’s it."
"It'll be fun," he added.
For a while, maybe. For the Rockets, most definitely.
For the Blazers, it's going to be a staunch reminder that they have a long way to go before they're crowned genuine championship contenders.