This might be the toughest and most enjoyable post I write all season. It’s hardly the hardest (that being between Oden’s injury in L.A. or Martell being out for the year) but I’ve been racking my brain for the best way to start, finally, a Blazers playoff series preview. I thought about quantifying my feelings as we embark on the McMillan era’s maiden voyage into the postseason, but the truth is, everyone is going to be different.
You could be like SJ and I, ready for that final dose of playoff success to top off a regular season and has slowly dimmed our memories of Shaq’s armpits in Game 7 (though I probably just gave SJ nightmares again). You could be a longtime Blazer vet, who remembers beating Philly in 77′, Walton’s shirt being ripped off and people hanging from lamp posts at the victory parade. You could be in your 30’s, still with fond memories or Clyde, Terry and the Gang, getting emotional just hearing the national media jump on your old and busted bangwagon (we can’t get a new hotness until we get Title No. 2). Or this could be your first forary into Blazers playoff basketball, which probably means that this series will decide how your mood swings for the next two weeks.
Whoever you are, you are lucky to be here, but you deserve it. ESPN is giving Blazers fans credit for turning their backs on this franchise and coming back just as quickly when the focus changed. And rightfully so, because Blazers fans are just as responsible for being here and Portland demi-gods like Pritchard and Roy.
With that said, let’s get down to the nitty gritty. The journey to get here doesn’t matter now. We have seven games to beat the Houston Rockets, and this is how we’re going to do it (you didn’t honestly think I’d pick against Portland, did you?).
All Houston fans are going to want to point these three games out:
101-99 Win in Portland
94-98 Loss at Houston
88-102 Loss at Houston
The dates don’t matter — I’m not offering excuses or reasoning for those games. But Houston fans are going to point to Portland getting knocked back twice in Houston, and needing a Roy heave to win in Portland (leaving out that it was Roy’s dumb foul on Yao, after making the go-ahead bucket, that needed that heave in the first place, but I digress). But that was the regular season, this is the playoffs. It’s like comparing Alien and Aliens. Both are masterpieces, but Alien is a slow moving, atmospheric survival movie while Aliens throws it all on the table and gave us a butt-kicking fight to the finish. The Rockets might have gotten through the regular season with a very efficient system, going 6-4 in their last 10, but the Blazers are playing their best ball right now (9-1 in last 10) and are in full blown “I am Godzilla, You are Japan” mode.
Everyone and their mother knows that defense wins in the playoffs. You just cannot advance without protecting the paint. Fortunately, with Joel Przybilla and Greg Oden protect the paint like Sigourney Weaver protected Newt in Aliens. Sure, they each, Oden especially, pick up fouls doing this, but when these guys are on, they aren’t allowing easy buckets. And that brings us to our first matchup:
(Before I go on I want to note that I will not be using either team’s league standing for defensive stats, because how you play against the rest of the league has nothing at all to do with how you matchup with one team. I’m not discounting the Rockets’ excellent D at all, though).
C — Joel Przybilla, Greg Oden and Channing Frye vs. Yao Ming and Carl Landry:
There’s no question that Yao is the best player here. He towers over everyone in the league and has a pretty stroke from almost anywhere inside the arc. But he actually hasn’t played all that well against Portland this year (surprising, since he historically has murdered us), putting up 16 and 9 in three games. Part of the reason for that is Nate McMillan has been very creative, and focused, in taking Yao out of the game, throwing LaMarcus Aldridge and even Travis Outlaw in front of Yao to prevent him from even sniffing the ball.
Last game, it worked, but Chuck Hayes and Von Wafer reaped the benefits of their defenders helping out. Word is that Joel wants to guard Yao straight up now, and I could see him getting into Yao’s head a little bit. If it doesn’t work, I say we go back to fronting, especially at home where we could feed the crowd with forced turnovers. The real key is going to be Oden staying into the game when Yao is out there, because Channing doesn’t stand much of a chance againt him. And if the refs are going to start giving Oden any sort of leeway now, he should absolutely dominate Hayes, from a physical standpoint. I still expect Yao to put up numbers, but if the Blazers can come anywhere close to breaking even with Houston in this trench battle, they’ll be doing wonders for themselves.
PF — LaMarcus Aldridge and Travis Outlaw vs. Luis Scola and Chuck Hayes
This should be interesting, as athletically the Blazers hold a huge advantage. That might be the trump card to this entire series actually, but during the regular season Scola got the best of everyone with his fundamentals and wily offensive moves. This is just speculation, but I’m guessing the Rockets will try Scola straight up on LMA and then double down if LaMarcus starts finding an offensive rhythm. That’s what we want. What we don’t want is Scola hitting turnaround jumpers over Aldridge’s long arms. And while Hayes will get his boards and some hustle-points, Travis (that jumper is a wild-card alert) can abuse him on the perimeter. Points-wise, Portland needs to establish an advantage here.
SF — Nic Batum and Travis Outlaw vs. Ron Artest and ?
Yikes, Artest can beast these two till kingdom come. That’s your first thought. But it’s also the Rockets greatest problem. Tons of people have said this before me, but having Artest as your best perimeter scorer (and thus best crunch-time player) is frightening. He can’t take you off the dribble very well without lowering a shoulder into your side, and you can read what he’s going to do on offense more frequently than not (I know, I know, easier said than done). At home, with Batum and Outlaw feeding off the home crowd, Artest could go crazy (poor word choice?) chasing them around. On the road, Artest will be more free to use his size.
Overall, this matchup is going to come down to some key plays with Batum or Outlaw defending Artest on the perimeter. The less the help defender has to help, the better, but he’s going to have to help, meaning the second big man better be ready do make that second rotation, otherwise Scola et all will have nice stroll through Layup City.
SG — Brandon Roy and Rudy Fernandez vs. Shane Battier and Von Wafer
Blazers Win! Blazers Win! (Confetti falls onto center court). Here lies Portland’s biggest advantage, and the reason they will win the series. Battier does a nice job on Roy with his percentage-based defense that he calculates everyday on his abacus while reciting Plato’s philosophy, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Roy is a Top-10 player in the league now, and while he put up a decent 21, 5 and 5 on Battier in the regular season, word from Quick (awhile ago) was that Roy was frustrated with this matchup. When Roy gets frustrated and has time to study and think, I’m putting money on him going medieval and leaving his bubblegum at home.
Other than defense, expect Battier to get a few of those secondary-break three’s where everyone collapses on the guards and the trailer is wide open for the wing triple (the Paul Pierce Classic). Then there’s Von Wafer. If you’re Houston, do you want to be trusting Von Wafer to give you bench scoring in the playoffs? I didn’t think so. He’s been a nice story for them in the post-McGrady era, but he doesn’t scare me in a seven-game series where consistency and big plays win the day. He also doesn’t scare me trying to guard Rudy running off 5,356 Oden and Pryzbilla brick-wall screens. (Note: I list Battier as a SG because he’s going to be guarding Roy most of the time).
PG — Steve Blake and Sergio Rodriguez vs. Aaron Brooks and Kyle Lowry
We all love short, spunky PG’s with a streaky jumper, especially those from a local university. But they don’t tend to win you playoff games. Name the last guard (who wasn’t an All-Star) of his mold that led his team to postseason success? I can’t think of one either. Brooks might win a game for Houston just because he gets on a hot streak, but I’ll take the game-to-game consistency of Blake in a series. The key here is to limit Brooks’ penetration. He’s going to get by Blake, so again, we need to rotate well enough to stop Brooks from getting easy buckets (and thus giving him more confidence in his shot) or dishing to the steady Rockets big men.
I’d like to take a moment to single out Sergio. He gets more credit for his recent play than we’ve given him. He has done everything required of his role and then some, getting layups that surprise me every time he does. I’m beginning to trust him a little more, but my mental health still can’t rely on him not turning the ball over. In the Rose Garden, he’ll more than likely be great. In Houston, Blake and Roy might be playing heavy, heavy minutes bringing the ball up.
The Pick: Blazers in 5.
I know, I know. Call me a homer. But hear me out. There are only two logical picks if you’re going with Portland. Blazers in 5 or Blazers in 7. If this goes to 6 games and the Blazers need to win in Houston to clinch, I don’t think they win there. So either you think each team will win all their home games and home-court will decide the winner (sort of like the Atlanta-Boston series last year) or you think Portland will steal one of the first two in Houston and close out in Game 5. I’m siding with the latter. I just think Nate has done such a great job this season keeping this team on an even keel and they’ve built up so much confidence with their recent play, there is no reason Portland can’t win one on the road.
Two final things. Hang on, I have to get on my soap box.
Ric Bucher: I know you tried to qualify your “Thunder future over Blazers future” statement on Bill Simmons’ podcast, but I still don’t buy it. We went over this before. I know you meant long term when you made that claim, but the Thunder still currently have ZERO championship-caliber big men. If they get Blake Griffin, it’s a plausible argument, but not now. The Blazers are also in a great financial position right now with cap-room coming up this summer, season-ticket sales doing well and games selling out every night (not to mention a great, wealthy owner in Paul Allen) so I don’t know why you assume they have to decide on who to keep. Why not keep everyone? If you think Sam Presti is just that much better of a GM than KP, or that the Thunder are going to swindle teams over the next year with their cap space, just say it. That said, I still love your work and would thoroughly enjoy arguing about this with you. I’m telling you folks, Bucher is a keeper in the national media game.
Marc Stein: Also from Simmons’ podcast (by the way, is everyone enjoying Simmons being on the bandwagon, drooling over Roy and yet still trashing Oden?), Stein said he’s worried about you, the Portland fans. His theory is that you have such great expectations for this team that if one thing goes wrong (like a loss in Game 1) then you will turn on the Blazers. Now, Stein did qualify this, saying he hasn’t been to Portland often and he could be completely wrong, so we’ll let him partially off the hook, but I know you, Portland fans, and this will not happen this year. Not with this team, not in the Rose Garden.
OK, we’re over 2,000 words. It’s time to stop. The pick is Blazers in 5 (SJ’s might be different), but no matter what, this is still about getting winning playoff experience for the long term. As great as this year has been, as much fun as these playoffs could be, this is still a teaser trailer for one hell of an epic hoops movie.
Tags: Aaron Brooks Aliens Blazers Brandon Roy Carl Landry Channing Frye Houston Rockets Joel Pryzbilla Kyle Lowry LaMarcus Aldridge Luis Scola Marc Stein Nate McMillan NBA Playoffs Nba Playoffs Nicholas Batum Oden Ric Bucher Rockets Rockets Blazers First Round Rudy Fernandez Sergio Rodriguez Shane Battier Sigourney Weaver Steve Blake Travis Outlaw Von Wafer Walton Yao Yao Ming