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Playoff Preview: Rockets vs. Trail Blazers

Setting the scene for Houston’s first-round series with the Portland Trail Blazers

HOUSTON - Setting the scene for Houston’s first-round series with the Portland Trail Blazers:

The Basics:

Houston Rockets (54-28) vs. Portland Trail Blazers (54-28)

Season Series:

Rockets won 3-1

Point Differential:

Portland: +4.0 (NBA rank: 8th)

Houston: +4.6 (NBA rank: 6th)

Offensive Rating (points per 100 possessions):

Portland: 108.3 (5th)

Houston: 108.6 (4th)

Defensive Rating (points allowed per 100 possessions):

Portland: 104.7 (16th)

Houston: 103.1 (12th)

Pace (number of possessions per 48 minutes):

Portland: 97.48 (10th)

Houston: 98.81 (5th)

Four Factors:

Shooting – Effective field goal percentage (eFG% is a field goal percentage that’s adjusted for made 3-pointers being 1.5 times more valuable than a 2-point shot):

Portland: 50.4% (14th)

Houston: 53.1% (3rd)

Turnovers – Turnover ratio (the number of turnovers a team averages per 100 possessions):

Portland: 13.9 (T-3rd)

Houston: 16.3 (29th)

Rebounding – Rebound percentage (the percentage of total rebounds obtained)

Portland: 51.6% (7th); offensive rebound rate: 28.0% (3rd); defensive rebound rate: 74.7% (13th)

Houston: 52.1% (2nd); offensive rebound rate: 27.4% (T-6th); defensive rebound rate: 74.1% (20th)

Free Throws – Free throw rate (the rate at which a team goes to the line relative to the number of field goals it attempts):

Portland: .270 (18th)

Houston: .386 (1st)

SCENE-SETTING

It’s always fascinating to look back and reflect upon the frozen moments that forever changed the course of sports history: David Tyree’s helmet catch that ruined the Patriots’ perfect season; Ray Allen’s miraculous corner 3 that rescued Miami; Dave Roberts’ curse-breaking, comeback-sparking steal. Each could have easily resulted in a completely different outcome, shifting narratives, perspectives and storylines in mind-bending ways. The chain reaction set off by those particular butterfly effects is borderline incomprehensible, leaving behind an infinite number of what-ifs. Such is the complex – and frequently confounding – beauty of sports.

All of which brings us to the events of March 9, 2014. With less than seven minutes remaining that night, the Rockets found themselves trailing the Portland Trail Blazers by 13. Portland’s offense had been its high-octane self right from the opening tip while Houston had scuffled and struggled to find much in the way of rhythm on either end of the court. Then James Harden and Jeremy Lin took turns lighting up the scoreboard, the Rockets rapidly rallied and, remarkably, Houston was in position to steal a game it had no business winning.

But much more work remained before any such larceny charges could formally be filed. When Wesley Matthews went to the line with 12 seconds left and his team up two, it appeared as if the Rockets were going to come up empty, anyway. Matthews had hit all nine of his freebies up that point and he calmly coaxed in his tenth moments later. No. 11, however, missed its mark. Houston still had hope.

You know what happened next: a miraculous Harden 3 from the corner that tied the game and forced overtime; another 3-point deficit in the extra frame, and another Harden 3 to tie; then Lin hit an impossibly high, arcing shot over the outstretched arm of Robin Lopez that gave the Rockets the lead for good with 1:21 left on the clock. Houston escaped with a 118-113 win, securing the playoff tiebreaker over Portland in the process. And now, here we are, mere days away from the two teams tangling once more in a series that will start at Toyota Center – in large part due to the wacky events that went down during that incredible March evening.

Who knows how things might have unfolded if Matthews had knocked down both free throws or Harden had missed that high degree-of-difficulty corner 3? In sports, as in life, the second one starts tugging at the threads woven into the tapestry of our present timeline, it’s impossible to divine how the whole thing might unravel (unless, that is, Rust Cohle was right and time really is just a flat circle - but let’s save that discussion for another occasion). A different outcome would have altered not just the winners and losers that evening, but potentially everything that those two teams went on to accomplish the rest of the way.

Since sussing out suitable answers to such cosmic riddles is an exercise in futility, this preview will thankfully focus instead on what we do know based on what’s actually transpired this season. To be sure, the past likely offers powerful hints at what the future holds. But the only thing 100 percent certain going forward is that many, many more of those indelible, unforgettable and life-altering frozen moments lie in wait, promising ample amounts of agony and ecstasy for those left in their wake.

STAR POWER

Both clubs come into this matchup boasting a pair of terrifically talented All-Star players on their respective rosters. Houston’s dynamic duo, however, has produced more prolifically when these two teams have faced off this season; something that certainly helps explain why the Rockets ultimately prevailed 3-1 in the season series.

Harden and Dwight Howard were nothing short of dominant against Portland during the 2013-14 campaign, with the former rolling up eye-popping averages of 30.3 points, 7.3 rebounds and 5.3 assists per game while shooting better than 48 percent from the field and 45 percent from beyond the arc. All Howard did, meanwhile, was chip in with 25.5 points, 13.5 rebounds and nearly two blocked shots per game. He also led Houston in total plus/minus in the season series, owning a +38 in that category. And when those two players shared the floor together, the Rockets’ offense soared into the stratosphere, scoring at a dizzying rate of 120.4 points per 100 possessions which more than made up for the fact that their defensive rating during that time was a rather generous 107.5.

LaMarcus Aldridge’s and Damian Lillard’s combined production didn’t quite measure up to that lofty standard, but they definitely did plenty of damage as well. Aldridge averaged 26.8 points and 15.5 boards per game while twice delivering at least 20 points and 20 boards in the same contest. Lillard, meanwhile, produced 18.8 points and five assists per game against Houston this season. And while his shooting touch overall was off – he shot just 38.6 percent from the field – he did knock down more than 42 percent of his 3s. When Aldridge and Lillard were both on the court, Portland’s offensive and defensive ratings were 115.6 and 113.4, respectively – again, good, but nowhere near the +12.9 net rating Harden and Howard compiled.

Two other things that warrant mentioning: Lillard shot just 39 percent inside the restricted area against the Rockets this season as Houston’s rim protection frequently wreaked havoc with his finishing touch (Lillard’s season average against the league as a whole from that location was 50 percent). And though Lillard only turned the ball over 2.4 times per game this season and Portland’s ball security was superb all year long, the reigning Rookie of the Year coughed up the rock four times per game against Houston. You will likely not be surprised to find out that Patrick Beverley was Lillard’s primary defender during 14 of those 16 turnovers.

KNOW YOUR ROLES

Speaking of Beverley, he averaged nearly three offensive rebounds per game against Portland this season; heady stuff, even for the point guard who led all players at his position in offensive rebound rate. And Houston’s starting point guard is just one of a plethora of role players who promise to loom large in this series.

In no particular order, here are a handful of tidbits on but a few of the other prime suspects who figure to have a significant say in how this matchup unfolds:

- Since entering the league three years ago. Chandler Parsons has displayed a knack for playing his best basketball when the lights are brightest. That certainly held true during the playoffs last season when he averaged more than 18 points, six rebounds and nearly four assists per game against Oklahoma City while shooting 40 percent from 3. Houston might not need such gaudy numbers from him this time around, but it will definitely desire the same sort of floor spacing due to the massive amount of attention Harden and Howard figure to draw.

Notable: Parsons delivered his season-high for scoring during one of the best games of his career when he dropped 31 points, 10 boards, seven assists and two blocks on the Blazers back on January 20.

- Wes Matthews was actually Portland’s second-leading scorer against the Rockets this season, averaging more than 20 points per game; this, despite hitting just 30.6 percent of his 3s (Matthews’ career average from downtown is .394, a number he nearly matched this season by finishing with a hit rate of .393). Both he and Nic Batum (.235 from 3 against Houston; .361 for the season) fell well short of the 3-point shooting standard they set during the course of the 2013-14 campaign.

Given Portland’s fondness for the 3-ball, there’s little mystery in the fact that the Blazers’ best chance to spring an upset in this series hinges upon their players collectively catching fire from downtown. The long-range shooting prowess Matthews and Batum display figures to prove especially critical in that regard.

- Jeremy Lin led all players in plus/minus during the aforementioned March 9 thriller, posting a +21 that evening while scoring 26 points and parading his way to the line a season-high 12 times. The Rockets obviously won’t require that level of production from Lin on a nightly basis, but his playmaking off the bench could potentially give Houston a sizeable leg up on a Blazers team that doesn’t possess much firepower from its second unit (more on that later). And keep an eye out for those stretches when the Rockets go small while pairing Lin and Beverley together. During the 40 minutes those two shared the floor against Portland this season, the Rockets outscored Portland by 15 points while producing an offensive rating of 105.6 and a microscopic defensive efficiency mark of 83.9.

- Robin Lopez owned the highest plus/minus of any Portland rotation player versus the Rockets this season by registering a modest +3 over the course of the four games these two teams played against each other. His rim protection is positively vital for the Blazers, especially since their options in that regard are rather limited when he’s not on the floor. With that in mind, Portland desperately needs Lopez to stay out of any sort of foul trouble – a reality that was hammered home during Houston’s 116-101 win over the Blazers when Lopez was reduced to just 18 minutes of action as a direct result of foul problems. The 26-year-old center was the only Portland rotation player to finish with a positive plus/minus that night and Lopez has, in fact, been on the positive side of that ledger in three of the Blazers’ four meetings with Houston this season.

- On the other end of that spectrum, by the way, Portland has been outscored by a jaw-dropping 54 points during the 106 minutes Mo Williams has played against Houston this season. Terrence Jones, meanwhile, has struggled mightily in this matchup as well, with the Rockets having been bested by 45 points during his 49 minutes of floor time against Portland.

SIZE MATTERS

You know what you’re going to get with the Blazers from a lineup standpoint. Thanks to their extraordinary good health, Portland’s starting five logged the second-most minutes of any five-man unit in the NBA this season. That quintet carried the club all year, recording a top shelf net rating (of +8.5 throughout the season. And most notable of all – at least when viewed from within the particular prism of this series – is the fact that the Blazers’ starting five actually outscored Houston by 36 points in 72 minutes of action this year while posting an outlandish offensive rating of 125.8 and a rather respectable defensive mark of 103.5.

By contrast, Houston’s lineup looks are far more malleable. As the club had hoped before the season even began, the Rockets ought to be able to have success going both big and small against the Blazers. Whenever Houston has spread the floor against Portland with four shooters surrounding Howard, offensive pyrotechnics have ensued. Omri Casspi and Francisco Garcia have enjoyed big moments during those stretches, as has the aforementioned Beverley-Lin combo. And if those guys are having a difficult time knocking down shots, don’t be surprised if 3-point shooting specialist Troy Daniels gets an opportunity to strut his stuff. The 22-year-old isn't at all gun-shy and rest assured the Rockets will explore any and all avenues available to them in an effort to ensure they have enough floor spacing. Daniels’ defense and inexperience might be issues, but his deadeye shooting is the sort of skill that can steal a game or two come playoff time.

All of that having been said, don’t overlook the Rockets’ ability to revisit the supersized lineup with which it started the season. The sample size is of course painfully small (as it admittedly is for the vast majority of these matchup numbers), but Omer Asik and Howard helped Houston exactly as one might have anticipated when they paired up against Portland. The Rockets outscored the Blazers by eight points during the 15 minutes the two centers shared the floor, with Houston producing an offensive efficiency mark of 99.8 and a super stingy defensive rating of 82.9 during that time.

Houston is going to have options, and lots of them, in this series.

LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION

Though both clubs boast two of the more prolific offenses in the game, they go about the business of putting points on the board in two very different ways. They are similar in the fact that each team places a premium on the 3-ball, with Houston ranking No. 1 in the league in 3s attempted per game while Portland is third in that category.

That’s largely where the similarities end, however.

Only three other teams in the NBA attempt more midrange shots per game than does Portland (26.4) while the Rockets, of course, are dead last in that regard. The Blazers hit those shots at a relatively healthy clip of 41.2 percent which comes close to mirroring the 42.2 percent mark produced from that area by Aldridge, who led the league for a second consecutive year in midrange shot attempts. That having been said, Houston limited Portland to 38.5 percent shooting from midrange this season while Aldridge also fell shy of his typical numbers, connecting on 40 percent of his 45 midrange attempts against the Rockets.

Houston will also have to keep a keen eye on the left corner of the court, where the Blazers shot a torrid 43.8 percent over the course of the 2013-14 campaign. Portland’s hit rate from the right side, however, was just slightly above 31 percent. Matthews, in particular, must be watched when he spots up on the left side; he led the league in 3s taken from that location and hit them at a nearly 44 percent clip.

It’s worth noting, however, that Portland was just 8-of-32 (.250) from the corners against Houston this season, and could only manage to knock down 32.4 percent of its 3s overall – well below their top-10 mark of 37.2 percent. The Rockets have defended the 3-point arc very well all season and can’t afford a drop-off now. Portland ranks as the No. 2 spot-up team in the NBA, per Synergy, with Matthews, Lillard, Dorrell Wright and Williams all lethal when they have time to get set and let fly.

On the other side of the floor, the Blazers allow fewer corner 3s than does any other team in the NBA (just 3.8 per game). In fact, Portland allowed fewer 3s per game, period, than any team in the league save for San Antonio. The Rockets hit 34.6 percent of their attempts from downtown against Portland this season, but did manage to knock down 10-of-26 (.385) from the corners.

All told, Portland finished the season ranked fifth in the league in defending spot-ups, per Synergy, but got torched by pick-and-roll ball-handlers, post-ups and isolations (which obviously helps explain Harden’s and Howard’s monstrous numbers). The Blazers’ season-long philosophy has been to stay home on shooters, especially those in the corners, in an effort to prevent opponents from feasting on a smorgasbord of open 3s. That strategic gambit comes at a cost of allowing ample room for penetration, however, so it will be fascinating to see if Portland Head Coach Terry Stotts decides to deviate from that approach should Harden and Howard continue to have their way with his club.

Continuing along that train of thought, Portland ranks 26th in the NBA in terms of the number of paint points it allows per game after adjusting for pace of play. The only silver lining for the Blazers in that regard: only Indiana and OKC allowed a lower opponent field goal percentage from the restricted area this season than did Portland (56.8 percent).

Lopez represents by far the biggest reason for that mark as opponents are shooting just 42.5 percent at the rim when he is in the vicinity – a figure that favorably compares to the one owned by the league leader in that category, Roy Hibbert, who limits opponents to a hit rate of 41.5 percent. In related news, the Rockets shot right around 56 percent from the restricted area when playing Portland this season – a considerable dip when taking into consideration that their season average from that location is 62.5 percent.

Still, Houston averaged 56.5 paint points per game against the Blazers this year while Portland tallied 43 per contest in that category. The Rockets’ dominance in that area is hardly a surprise given that they finished second in the league in pace-adjusted paint points scored per contest while Portland was 29th in that category.

SITUATIONALLY SPEAKING

Both teams have been outstanding in clutch situations (defined as any point in the final five minutes of a game when the margin is within 5 points or fewer) this season, largely thanks to their high-powered offenses that have performed exceptionally well. Houston’s ‘clutch’ offensive rating this season was a robust 116.9 while the Blazers’ was even better at 118.7 (those represent the fourth- and second-best such marks in the league, respectively). The Rockets, however, boast the superior crunch time net rating (+16.4 as compared to the Blazers’ +13.5) due to the fact that their D in those situations ranks sixth in the league while Portland’s is tied for 19th. And both clubs have made come-from-behind victories commonplace: the Blazers have rallied from fourth quarter deficits to win a Western Conference leading 22 times this season; Houston has done so on 17 different occasions.

As one might expect, each club’s superstars have had a hand in helping their teams deliver the goods in those late-game situations. James Harden finished the season as the league’s second leading scorer in the fourth quarter (behind only Kevin Durant), averaging 7 points per game in the final frame while shooting nearly 49 percent from the field and 46 percent from 3. Damian Lillard also finished in the top-10 in that category while Aldridge was in the top-20. Together the two combined to average 11.4 points in the fourth period, albeit with shooting percentages that don't hold a candle to Harden’s.

- Houston concluded the season as the second-best first quarter and third-best first half team in the league, owning net ratings of +10.2 and +8.1, respectively. Portland, meanwhile, finished as the third-best third quarter team (net rating: +7.8) and fifth-best in the second half of games overall (net rating: +6.0).

- Pay close attention to what transpires between these two clubs in the second quarter. During the regular season the Rockets took advantage of Portland’s depth issues, compiling an offensive rating of 102.8 and a stifling D-rating of 88.1 in that period. Starters always play heavier minutes once the postseason arrives so it will be interesting to see how long of a leash Coach Stotts employs if his reserves aren’t getting the job done.

ODDS AND ENDS

- When adjusting for pace, the Blazers forced fewer turnovers per game than did any team in the league this season and, not coincidentally, scored the fewest number of points per game via those miscues. But both Houston and Portland averaged 20.3 points per game off of turnovers when playing against each other this season.

- Portland finished second in the league in pace-adjusted second chance points scored per game, and the Rockets have experienced issues all season long in terms of limiting opponents to just one shot on the defensive end. But Portland has had its fair share of struggles in that area as well (the Blazers were tied for 23rd in terms of pace-adjusted second chance points allowed; Houston finished 29th) and the Rockets actually ended up on top in that battle between the two teams this season, outscoring Portland 17.8 to 15.3 per game in second chance points during their four meetings.

- Both the Blazers and Rockets have excelled at defending without fouling this season, with both clubs finishing the year ranked in the league’s top-6 in opponent free throw rate. But that didn’t prevent the two teams from parading their way to the free throw line against each other. Houston averaged 31.8 free throws per contest against Portland this season – a mark that’s actually a smidge above its season average of 31.1. The Blazers, meanwhile, averaged 28.5 freebies per game against the Rockets – a sizeable increase from their end-of-season average of 23.5.

- Houston averaged 18.5 pace-adjusted fast break points per game (3rd in the NBA) this season while Portland averaged 10.9 (22nd). Interestingly, those numbers held firm when the Rockets and Blazers met this season as Houston emerged with an average of 18.5 fast break points per game while the Blazers averaged 11 on the nose.

FINAL PREDICTIONS

Just kidding - there will be no prognosticating here. Longtime readers will likely recall that the author retired from the prediction business shortly after the last time these two teams faced off in the postseason.

So instead, here's one final morsel to do with what you wish: This will represent the fourth time the Rockets and Blazers have met in the playoffs. Houston won each of the first three series (1987, 1994, 2009), all of which took place during the opening round. Perhaps time truly is just a flat circle after all.

All stats courtesy of NBA.com except where otherwise noted.