Both teams have an All-Star in the backcourt (Damian Lillard, James Harden) and another on the interior (LaMarcus Aldridge, Dwight Howard). Each has a bulldog defender on the perimeter (Wesley Matthews, Patrick Beverley) and a jack of all trades out on the wing (Nicolas Batum, Chandler Parsons).
Both clubs wrapped up the 2013-14 campaign with 54 wins and 28 losses, securing most—or all—of those victories at the offensive end.
More than anything, this is a series of self-reflection, a personal challenge to find a wave of momentum on even ground. Through four games, it's been that to a degree. Three of the four have needed an extra session to crown a winner, with all four decided by a total of 17 points.
However, these four looks into the mirror have put the Blazers in a favorable light three different times. That hasn't happened by accident.
"We’re at our best when our backs are to the wall and have something prove," Blazers coach Terry Stotts told Joe Freeman of The Oregonian. "We have a determination to us. We know what we have to do, and most times we do it."
Aldridge's cheat-code-aided video-game numbers (35.3 points, 11.5 rebounds per game) have helped. Ditto for Lillard's triple-double threats (25.5 points, 7.5 assists, 6.0 rebounds per game), Batum's across-the-board contributions (17.8 points, 7.0 rebounds, 5.0 assists per game), Matthews' shutdown defense and Robin Lopez's hustle.
This series lead hasn't been built on the stat sheet, though.
Houston has gotten 74.5 points a night out of Harden, Howard and Parsons. Five different Rockets are shooting above 46 percent for the series. The Blazers have the most efficient offense of the postseason (114.6 points per 100 possessions), the Rockets sit at No. 2 (110.4), via NBA.com.
Portland leads Houston 3-1 in the series, despite only outscoring Rockets by 7 total points.— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) April 28, 2014
Both teams can—and have—put up points in bunches. Both defenses are prone to fits of bleeding and don't often keep the necessary bandages close by.
With so much parity and similarity between each side, these games haven't been decided by talent, scheme or strategy. It's been Portland's effort and intensity, its willingness to hit the hardwood in pursuit of loose balls and refusal to quit on plays.
As Ben Golliver of Blazers Edge noted, this group doesn't back away from challenges—it embraces them:
These Blazers might not play elite defense, they might get beaten on the glass at times, they might miss some crucial free throws, they might squander leads, they might foul a jump shooter in overtime and, yes, they might even make their own franchise player nervous during the defining play of their entire season. They will not, however, go down without getting dirty.
Even with the defense-optional nature of this series, not everything has gone to script.
Matthews was a 39.3 percent three-point shooter in the regular season and Mo Williams connected on 36.9 percent of his long-range looks. Through the first four games of this series, they're shooting a combined 10-of-39 (25.6 percent) from distance.
Lopez has been a force in the middle (9.3 rebounds, 2.0 blocks per game), but foul trouble has limited his involvement (5.7 per 36 minutes). Even Aldridge has run into a rough patch (23 points on 22 shots in Game 3).
Minor stumbles are to be expected over a seven-game series. What the Blazers have avoided is letting those small mistakes snowball into anything greater:
Portland has the ability to win when things don't go right. Houston doesn't.— Hardwood Paroxysm (@HPbasketball) April 28, 2014
"Everything you do is magnified and all the little things that we're not doing cost you ... and we're down 1-3 because of it," Parsons told Anne M. Peterson of the Associated Press.
The Rockets are shooting themselves in the foot at the most inopportune times.
Getting off the launching pad isn't the issue. NBA.com (subscription required) indicates that Houston's 117.4 first-quarter offensive rating is the second-best in the playoffs, as is its plus-13.2 net rating in the opening frame.
Keeping their ship in orbit has proven problematic, though. Houston's minus-16.9 fourth-quarter net rating is third-worst all-time in the playoffs, highlighting the team's woeful crunch-time play.
The Rockets have spent 28 minutes in clutch situations so far (final five minutes of a five-point game). During that time, they've shot just 12-of-46 from the field (26.1 percent) and 1-of-15 from deep (6.7 percent). They have just three assists against nine turnovers.
Late-game execution requires the ultimate trust in teammates. It's knowing you can give help and someone will rotate to fill the spot you left, or hitting an open teammate with the confidence they'll finish the play.
Portland has that right now. It's shown that type of bond all season.
"The Blazers played for coach Terry Stotts on Sunday," The Oregonian's John Canzano wrote after Portland's 123-120 overtime win Sunday. "They played for each other. They played for themselves."
As for Houston, not so much. At a time when this group desperately needs to come together, it's tearing at the seams instead, as Bleacher Report's Kevin Ding explained:
Harden, 24, and Howard, 28, clearly have their own priorities. Those include Howard getting his touches in the post—and Harden getting Howard out of the lane for room to drive. So the Rockets look like great players but don't even look like a good team.
They have a theory on how to play basketball, focusing on scoring via threes, free throws and in the paint, but they don't have a system that mandates Harden and Howard really being all-in as far as working together. Their style is basically alternating attack modes, which is the sort of simplistic approach that always gets mucked up come playoff time.
The Rockets seem resigned to their fates. Despite telling the Houston Chronicle's Jonathan Feigen that it feels confident, this team doesn't show the fight needed for this time of year.
Not when Howard and Harden are fighting for touches. Not when both seem to be chasing stats before everything else.
The Blazers are dialed in for the same objective. The saturated stat sheets are just a byproduct of Stotts' miniature rotation (four players with 40-plus minutes, only six seeing more than 17 minutes).
The importance of chemistry is often overstated in the world of professional sports, but it can be a difference-making element when so many other areas are equal. With Portland flashing this type of elite-level production, that chemistry could be the guiding force behind a lengthy playoff run.
"We’re not here for moral victories," Lillard told CSNNW.com's Chris Haynes. “We all want to win the championship. Of course we’re going to take it game-by-game, but we’re here for rings, man."
Portland is playing with a purpose. This group carries itself with championship-caliber focus, poise and confidence.
Houston plays with a selfishness not typically seen away from an elementary school playground. The Rockets have greatness in their ranks, but nothing that collectively approaches that level.
A few different breaks could have dramatically reshaped the way this series has transpired. The Blazers didn't take that chance, they made sure the breaks fell in their favor.
Portland has willed itself to one clear-cut advantage over Houston: This team's desire to do more together is stronger than anything general manager Daryl Morey has put on the Rockets' roster.