54-28, 5th in the Western Conference
Kudos to the Portland Trail Blazers for finishing their surprising season as the fifth seed in the West. After slogging their way through much of the second half of the campaign, the Blazers finished with a flurry, winning five in a row and nine of 10 to wrap up the schedule.
In other words, Portland appears to be hot at the right time, but the Blazers will need more than just momentum to upset the Houston Rockets in the first round.
If there's any one factor that could decide this series, it's free throws. The Rockets didn't just live at the line this season; they practically developed a condominium complex on it. They led the league in free-throw attempts per game (31.1) and free-throw rate (.386 per field-goal attempt), and finished behind only the Kings in scoring 20.5 percent of their points at the stripe.
Houston's top tenants? Pretty easy to guess: James Harden and Dwight Howard, or, as you might otherwise call them, Nos. 2 and 3 on the list of the league's most frequent visitors, at 9.1 and 9.0 per game, respectively.
Such is the benefit of having not one but two superstars who often require contact to quell.
The Blazers, though, aren't ones to surrender those freebies to just anyone. According to NBA.com, Portland allowed the seventh-fewest free throws per 100 possessions (22.5) and the fifth-lowest opponent free-throw rate in the league (0.253 per field goal).
And not necessarily because they're "risk averse." The Blazers just don't often put themselves in positions from which they can only really recover by fouling. They registered the third-lowest turnover rate in the NBA this season (13.9 percent). Better to be able to defend soundly than have to catch up from behind.
Portland's defense is still suspect in its own right. It checked in 16th in defensive efficiency, at 104.7 points allowed per 100 possessions. But even that's better than what the Nets have done in their down-and-up season. The Trail Blazers have been steady, if often unspectacular, at that end, to say the least.
Still, if the Blazers can keep the Rockets off the line, if they can contain Harden and Howard without fouling them—and, in Harden's case, if they don't give Houston "free points" off miscues in transition—they'll have a shot to spring a semi-upset. We know from the season that the Rockets are "better" but not to an insurmountable degree. Such is the beauty of the No. 4 vs. No. 5 matchup. More evenly matched teams can make for a less predictable series.