Tonight the Portland Trail Blazers will play the Houston Rockets in the Moda Center for the second time this season. Houston is one of only three teams to defeat Portland thus far, joining Phoenix and Dallas in the hitherto exclusive club (coincidentally, these three teams have ousted Portland in their last three playoff appearances as well). The Trail Blazers will look to redeem themselves and extend their best-in-the-west record to 19-4.
Before we get into what the Trail Blazers must do to win, I’d like to extend my condolences to Houston Rockets head coach Kevin McHale. His mother Josephine Patricia Starcevich McHale passed away on Tuesday night and he has left the team to be with his family. Many of you may remember that Kevin lost his 23 year old daughter to Lupus around this time last year. I cannot fathom what his life is like right now and I hope you all will join me in wishing him the best.
A brighter point for the Rockets team as a whole is the return of point guard Jeremy Lin. Lin had been sidelined since November 27th after spraining his right knee against the Atlanta Hawks, missing Houston’s last six outings. Patrick Beverly is anticipated to start under assistant coach Kelvin Sampson, but Lin is operating with no restrictions and should still see quality court time. He has averaged a robust 14.8 points when coming off the bench this season.
Keys to the game:
Last time these teams met, James Harden abused the Trail Blazers for 33 points. Portland’s ICE pick & roll defense is designed to concede the long two, as it is among the lowest percentage shots available. However; this tactic does not work when players like Harden sink the open look. Houston’s bigs are hulking enough to swallow Portland’s guards on the screen, so the Trail Blazers must tweak their defense so Robin Lopez can help defend the shooter—Easier said than done.
Who’s on first, What’s on second, and nobody’s on Dwight Howard. If Robin Lopez strays too far from the rim, the Rockets are a well-placed pass from an uncontested dunk on every possession. That’s why Howard was able to score 29 points alongside Harden’s 33. LaMarcus Aldridge must slide in to the best of his abilities. He is by no means a defensive slouch, but stopping Dwight Howard in the paint is a tall order to fill.
On the offensive end, I’m looking for great things from Wesley Matthews. Damian Lillard will have to deal with the underrated defense of Patrick Beverley all night, but Matthews gets to pair up with James “the matador” Harden. This means easy drives and open threes while Harden conserves his energy for carrying Houston’s offense. Matthews will be called upon to lead the 3-point battle for Portland; and a battle it will be.
The Rockets attempt more 3-point shots than any other team in the NBA. Just 22 games into the season, they’ve shot 99 more threes than the Trail Blazers, who are widely known for their deep game at this point. Wesley Matthews must shine on the defensive end as well, as the elite perimeter defense he and Nicolas Batum provide is crucial to stopping Houston’s barrage.
As a final note, watch for LaMarcus Aldridge to be extra aggressive. He and Damian Lillard generally share the scoring burden, but if Lillard can’t get it going with Beverley harassing him, the scales have to tilt toward Aldridge. He should be more than up to the task. Portland native Terrence Jones has recently cracked the Rockets’ starting lineup and Aldridge will have a much deeper bag of tricks than the 21 year old NBA sophomore.