Game 34 Preview: Portland Trail Blazers vs. Houston Rockets

Blazers: 17-16

Rockets: 16-16

Game Details: Rose Garden, Portland, OR. 6:00 PM. TV: NBA TV/CSN. Radio: KXTG (95.5 FM)

Projected Portland Starting Lineup: PG Andre Miller (#24, 6′2″, Utah), SG Wesley Matthews (#2, 6′5″, Marquette), SF Nicolas Batum (#88, 6′9″, France), PF LaMarcus Aldridge (#12, 6′11″, Texas), C Marcus Camby (#23, 6′11″, UMass)

Projected Houston Starting Lineup: PG Kyle Lowry (#7, 6’0″, Villanova), SG Kevin Martin (#12, 6’7″, Western Carolina), SF Shane Battier (#31, 6’8″, Duke), PF Luis Scola (#4, 6’9″, Argentina), C Jordan Hill (#27, 6’10”, Arizona)

Before the start of the regular season, the Portland Trail Blazers and Houston Rockets had somewhat similar expectations placed on them. Both were coming off injury-plagued years and were thought by a lot of people to be in for major resurgences, Houston with a healthy Yao Ming and Portland (eventually) with a healthy Greg Oden. My, how things change over a few months. Now, both teams are fighting for a playoff spot in the Western Conference, but in both cases that will likely be the No. 7 or 8 seed, rather than home court advantage.

Even putting Yao aside, Houston’s starting center, Chuck Hayes, is expected to be sidelined two to four weeks with a sprained ankle. This leaves second-year forward Jordan Hill to fill the void. Hill is a fine player with a lot of room to grow in his game, but he’s certainly no match for Marcus Camby defensively. If Camby stays out of foul trouble, he could be in for another night like the one he had on Thursday against the Jazz. But if Camby is taken out by fouls or injury, the Blazers are just as thin in the middle as the Rockets are. Joel Przybilla is once again unavailable tonight, leaving Sean Marks and Dante Cunningham to fill the backup center minutes.

The centerpiece of the Rockets’ offense is Kevin Martin, a high-efficiency scorer who has put up 20 or more in each of the past seven games. The matchup between Martin and Wesley Matthews will likely be the one to watch tonight, as Matthews himself is coming off a career-high-tying 30 points against Utah. The other key matchup in this game will be at power forward, where LaMarcus Aldridge has been terrific lately (25.4 points and 10.2 rebounds over the last eight games) and Houston’s Luis Scola has put up solid numbers over the course of the season.

Shane Battier is one of the players Nicolas Batum was most often compared to when he came into the NBA: both are defensive-minded players who can hit the three but whose overall offensive games leave something to be desired in the consistency department. Batum is the more likely of the two to have a big scoring night, which could be the difference. Andre Miller should be a key difference-maker tonight as well. Kyle Lowry is decent, but a lot less consistent. His backup, former Duck Aaron Brooks, such a big part of the Rockets’ beating the Blazers in the ’09 playoffs, is struggling to find his mojo this season. One of the league’s leading three-point shooters in 2009-10 and the winner of the year’s Most Improved Player award, Brooks is now shooting a dismal 33 percent from deep.

Most of the starting matchups favor the Blazers, but the Rockets’ bench has an edge. Rudy Fernandez is Portland’s only semi-reliable reserve scoring option at the moment, and Dante Cunningham can usually be counted on to provide some hard-nosed play, but it’s hard to predict what you’ll get night to night out of Patty Mills or Armon Johnson. And when Sean Marks is playing double-digit minutes on a nightly basis, that’s never a good sign. The Rockets’ bench isn’t spectacular either, but Courtney Lee and Patrick Patterson have played well recently, and Chase Budinger had a big scoring night on Friday against Toronto.

On paper, the Blazers are the better team in this matchup, but depending on who plays, this game could go one of two ways. The Blazers’ and Rockets’ starting units match up as well as any two in the league as far as similar skill-sets go, so if the starters play the bulk of the game, this could be one of the more enjoyable games this season strictly from a watchability standpoint, despite the injuries to both squads. But if the reserves play heavy minutes due to injury or foul trouble, it could be kind of ugly. Either way, the Rockets are a team for Blazers fans to keep an eye on. Portland would do well to beat Houston this year, because there’s a very good chance these two teams will be fighting for one of the last two playoff spots, and a season-series advantage could be crucial. The teams play each other again on Wednesday, in Houston.

One last note to the Blazers’ television crew: Portland and Houston play each other several times a year. When choosing footage for your commercials promoting upcoming matchups between these teams, there are other games to pick from than the one last year in which Greg Oden suffered his season-ending knee injury. Let’s not reopen those wounds.

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