Houston Rockets vs. Portland Trail Blazers: Western Conference Round 1 Preview

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Houston Rockets vs. Portland Trail Blazers: Western Conference Round 1 Preview
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The Houston Rockets and Portland Trail Blazers will be a battle of similarities. Which high-powered, three-point gunning, run-and-fun offense will wear the other one out first?

During the regular season, the answer to this question was Houston. Barely. The Rockets defeated the Trail Blazers in three of their four meetings, but Portland managed to go down swinging with a 109.5 points per game average.

Their most recent meeting was a bleeding overtime battle back on March 9. The Rockets won by five points.

Looking ahead, these teams love playing fast. Houston is fifth in pace and Portland is 10th. Points will be scored. Defenses will feel insecure. Few series will contain more aesthetic pleasure.

Bill Baptist/Getty Images

Seeds: Houston Rockets No. 4; Portland Trail Blazers No. 5

Records: Houston Rockets (54-28); Portland Trail Blazers (54-28)

Season Series: Houston Rockets Beat Portland Trail Blazers 3-1

Schedule for Series

Game 1: Sun, April 20, Portland at Houston, 9:30 p.m. ET (TNT)

Game 2: Wed, April 23, Portland at Houston, 9:30 p.m. ET (TNT)

Game 3: Fri, April 25, Houston at Portland, 10:30 p.m. ET (ESPN)

Game 4: Sun, April 27, Houston at Portland, 9:30 p.m. ET (TNT)

Game 5: Wed, April 30, Portland at Houston, TBD, (TBD)

Game 6: Fri, May 2, Houston at Portland, TBD, (TBD)

Game 7: Sun, May 4, Portland at Houston, TBD, (TBD)

 

Key Storyline for Houston Rockets

The Rockets are talented enough to beat any team in the NBA in a seven-game series. They have incredibly potent athletes up and down their lineup and two perennial All-Stars at shooting guard and center.

The main question is whether their impenetrable, fast-paced offense can sustain its excellence in the playoffs. The Rockets are essentially a scientific experimentation. They shun mid-range jumpers and make a point to attack from the three-point and free-throw line.

Will this strategy work in a seven-game series, with the Trail Blazers having plenty of time to prepare? Or is their offensive execution so good nobody can do anything to stop it?

Bill Baptist/Getty Images

Key Storyline for Portland Trail Blazers

The Trail Blazers had an atrocious bench last season, so the team's general manager, Neil Olshey, made a point to improve it last summer. How much better did it actually get?

As Bleacher Report’s Jay Wierenga recently wrote:

They have some nice pieces such as Thomas Robinson, Mo Williams and C.J. McCollum, but aside from Williams this has been a somewhat inconsistent unit.

Much of that stems from inconsistent minutes, but in order for Portland to advance they will need at least one of these guys—perhaps two—to really step up.

During the regular season, Portland’s offense suffered with Dorell Wright on the floor, and they struggled on both ends with Robinson, McCollum and Meyers Leonard on the floor.

Can any of Portland’s bench members use an incredible playoff run to redeem a second straight year of impotence? The answer could very well decide whether they advance or go home.

Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

The X-Factors

For Houston, Jeremy Lin has been somewhat of an X-factor the entire season. Nearly two years since “Linsanity” ended, Lin’s basketball destiny appears to be as an inconsistent shooter who occasionally flashes enough scoring and playmaking ability to take games over by himself.

He’s a pretty good backup point guard.

After nearly making half his shots from the floor in November, Lin went on a two-month shooting slump from the three-point line. He shot 40.7 percent from the floor in February, and at times looked completely lost with the ball. 

Right now he’s on a bit of a hot steak, shooting an unconscious 47.2 percent from deep on 4.5 attempts per game. If he’s able to sustain his brilliant shooting from outside throughout the postseason, Houston’s offense becomes even more poisonous. 

Bill Baptist/Getty Images

Portland knows what it’s getting out of most of its starters, but Robin Lopez is one who has the potential to turn the entire series on its head.

Lopez is an underrated defensive savant: One of the league’s finest rim-protectors and a potentially devastating problem for James Harden and Dwight Howard. If Lopez can patrol the paint, guard Howard in single coverage and retreat fast enough in transition to win battles with Harden at the rim, Portland’s defense could get the boost it needs.

If Lopez loses his possession-by-possession battle for position and finds himself in early-game foul trouble, it’s difficult to image Portland having a chance.

GREG WAHL-STEPHENS

Key Matchup

The two best offensive players in this series will score as they please. LaMarcus Aldridge attempted 30 free-throws against Houston this season—his second-highest tally against any team—and James Harden averaged 30.3 points, 7.3 rebounds and 5.3 assists per game in four meetings against the Trail Blazers.

Arguably the third-best offensive player in this series is Damian Lillard, but his production isn’t close to guaranteed. Why? NBA All-Infuriation first team member Patrick Beverley lives to make Lillard’s life a living hell.

Lillard shot 38.6 percent in four games against the Rockets this year. Beverley was a bit of a factor, and the two spoke about their on-court feud after a contest in early March.

As transcribed by SI.com’s Ben Golliver, here’s what Lillard had to say:

It’s irritating that he’s doing all that little stuff like flopping, tying you up and all that for the whole game. But I don’t really get caught up in that. It’s whatever. 

Beverley’s response was matter of fact:

Damian Lillard whines. I don’t care what he says. You’re a grown man. You’re a professional basketball player — professional first. … I played against all the other top point guards, all the other All-Star point guards, and it was nothing but praise. ‘Patrick pushes me, Patrick plays hard, he forces me to better my game. Patrick does this.’ He whines and says that I’m pushing and all that. I just wanted to get that off my chest.

These two aren’t friends, and if Beverley is able to stay under Lillard’s skin, the Trail Blazers will have a difficult time keeping up with Houston’s dynamic offense.

Bill Baptist/Getty Images

Prediction

This series lacks philosophical juxtaposition, and the team with more talent will win. That team, of course, is the Rockets. James Harden and Dwight Howard are two of the NBA’s 15 best players, each coming off incredible campaigns deserving of every individual accolade they receive.

Both are so tough to account for. Harden is one of the league’s five best scorers and an impossible cover who just sort of does as he pleases with the ball. Howard is a defensive menace who could potentially blot LaMarcus Aldridge from the series, if that’s what Houston desperately needs him to do. 

The Rockets are healthy and happy the regular season is finally over, and they’ll prevail in a quick five-game series.

 

All statistics in this article are from Basketball-Reference.com or NBA.com/Stats (subscription required) unless otherwise noted.  

Michael Pina covers the NBA for Bleacher Report, ESPN’s TrueHoop Network, Sports On Earth, Fox Sports, Grantland and The Classical. His writing can be found here. Follow him @MichaelVPina 

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