Couple of things to keep in mind before we delve too deeply into Portland’s final showdown of 2012-13 with the Houston Rockets.
1) The first two games that featured Houston and Portland were must-see TV (both overtime victories by the Blazers one at home and one on the road), and the third was a blowout in favor of Houston. Rarely would you say that a big win by the Rockets was regression to the mean and back-to-back overtime wins by Portland are the outliers, but in this case it is my opinion that Houston is the significantly better team and fortune happened to back the Blazers in two games they probably should have lost.
2) Houston is everything Portland should (and hopefully does) aspire to be in 2013-14. They’re a young team with a strong scoring back-court, they play an up-tempo game that produces a lot of points and lots of highlights, and they are piloted by an out-and-out NBA superstar who is certainly a game-changer. Damian Lillard doesn’t have the beard game of James Harden, but he’s the kind of player who can have the type of impact on Portland Harden has had on Houston. Portland’s back-court of Lillard and Wesley Matthews can score, Nicolas Batum is blossoming into a reliable three-point shooter, and LaMarcus Aldridge is cementing his place as an All-Star regular, that’s a very similar core to the group that has led the Rockets back into the playoffs.
3) The Rockets are the hottest thing going in the NBA right now as far as the culture of the league is concerned. Daryl Morey (the Rocket’s GM who may or may not have sat next to me during a press dinner before Portland’s first playoff game of 08-09) has been a bit of a folk hero around certain corners of the NBA for years. This season, everything he’s preached is coming to fruition. Houston holds the seventh seed right now, but could move up to six (anything higher is out of reach at this point). Nothing is set in stone yet at either the top or bottom of the Western Conference. The Rockets could face either the Thunder or the Spurs if they stay in seventh or the Nuggets if they climb to sixth. None of those match-ups really favor Houston, but there are going to be a lot of people picking this team to be upset capable in the first round, upset capable with the caveat of “if they get hot.”
Blazers Starting 5: PG Damian Lillard, SG Wesley Matthews, SF Victor Claver, PF LaMarcus Aldridge, C J.J. Hickson
Rockets Starting 5: PG Jeremy Lin, SG James Harden, SF Chandler Parsons, PF Greg Smit, C Omer Asik
For starters, LaMarcus Aldridge playing is an interesting wrinkle. The Blazers have fallen apart on offense without LA, so bringing him back makes sense if Portland had something left to play for. We all know that they do not have anything left to play for (expect maybe avoiding a double-digit losing streak to end the season), so NOT playing LaMarcus Aldridge anymore makes plenty of sense to me. The Blazers feel differently than I do, though, so LA is in the lineup meaning Portland probably won’t look so discombobulated or play the uninspired offense we all saw on Wednesday against the Grizzlies.
The center position is going to be a bit of a wild card. Meyers Leonard has looked pretty good in his starts with LA on the bench, but with LaMarcus back, J.J. Hickson will likely be back at center. Hickson will struggle against Omer Asik (as would Meyers Leonard). The difference in my mind is that Leonard could draw Asik out of the middle with his 15- to 17-foot jumper, something Hickson won’t do. However, with LA back on the floor, the Blazers will have a jump-shooter out there. Whether or not Asik covers Hickson or LA could be an important indicator of how this game is going to go.
The best match-up of the night was probably going to be Nicolas Batum versus Chandler Parsons. Batum is (likely) out though, so we won’t get the chance to watch two of the best and most athletic young wings in the league go one-on-one. Victor Claver will have his hands full with Parsons, but Vic needs to continue to get better by playing against the best guys in the league at his position. I expect Parsons should have a big night. There’s a good chance that his scoring will be the difference maker.
And finally, the marquee match-ups of the evening will be the tag-team of Jeremy Lin and James Harden versus Damian Lillard and Wesley Matthews. Dame should have the advantage over Lin, that being said, what Portland gains at the point guard spot probably isn’t enough to off-set what they lose at the two. James Harden is going to be a very tough cover for Wesley Matthews. There’s no doubt Wes is up to the task, he just might be ineffective on offense since he’ll be working extra hard on the other end.
What to Watch For
- How much and how well will LaMarcus play. My guess is that LA wants to play because he wants to try and salvage some of what’s left of this season. What’s left, as we all know and I’ve said over and over, is not much, but still you can’t fault an All-Star for wanting to help his team save a little face. What we don’t want to see is LA getting hurt, or more hurt, in meaningless games. That’s only part of the story though. LaMarcus might not be in tip-top shape right now, it might take him awhile to get in rhythm, he might not be able to provide what he usually provides. It seems like a lose-lose proposition for me. Anyway… How LA plays could very well determine whether or not Portland competes in this one, how long he plays could determine just exactly what the big idea is with bringing him back at all.
- Portland’s bench. With LA back in the lineup, the bench is reshuffled down one peg. That means that Joel Freeland might not get any minutes and Meyers Leonard will have to once again play behind J.J. Hickson. The hope is that Leonard and Freeland (if he plays) don’t have a precipitous drop-off with fewer minutes. Those guys need to get the reps right now. Hopefully they’ll both get at least a little PT, and hopefully they’ll be able to maximize that PT.
- Can the Blazers keep it close, and if they can’t how long before Terry Stotts shuts it down. Houston might turn this into a blowout very quickly. If they do, how long will it take for Stotts to pull his starters (and by starters I mean LaMarcus Aldridge)? Stotts has been given a bit of free reign in his first season as Portland’s head coach. It’s been months since the media questioned whether or not it was sustainable for the Blazers to have four guys averaging around 35 minutes a night, and the minutes haven’t dropped all that much for Portland’s top four. Stotts also hasn’t been second guessed on some of his lineup choices (such as keeping Will Barton out of the rotation entirely and playing Nolan Smith at all) very often. It makes sense that Stotts has avoided some of the more probing questions considering his team has done remarkably well with regards to what this season could have been. That being said, it stands to reason that leaving his regular rotation guys in during a blowout when there are precious few game situations remaining for guys like Barton, Victor Claver, and Joel Freeland to continue their acclimation to the NBA game might draw the attention of more than a few attentive local writers/commentators.