With six games left in their rapidly dwindling season, the Portland Trail Blazers officially sit one game behind the Houston Rockets in the race for home court advantage. That one game behind is a bit of a misnomer, however, since the Blazers have a full two more losses than the Rockets.
It gets worse from there – the Blazers also soundly lost the season series to the Rockets 1-3, so the Rockets hold that tiebreaker. Put more simply, in order for the Blazers to snatch home court advantage away from the Rockets, they need to lose at least one less game than the Rockets, which is currently a full three Rockets losses away.
But wait, there’s more bad news! Other than home games against the Thunder and Spurs, the Rockets don’t play any other playoff bound teams in their remaining eight games. I always say no game in the NBA is ever easy, but the Rockets schedule definitely helps to usher in at least a decent finish for them.
Do I think getting home court advantage is unlikely? Unfortunately, yes. That is an incredibly steep hill to have to climb, and I fear that time has simply run out on the Blazers. I will throw in the disclaimer: this is the NBA, and far crazier things have happened (a different sport, but this Red Sox collapse showed you just how possible the darkest [or best] timeline is).
Additionally, as David has already noted, the Rockets are currently beset by injuries to two key contributors – Dwight Howard is having ankle issues, and Patrick Beverly has at least partially torn his meniscus. If there is ever a time for the Rockets to falter, it is with both of them out.
We can sit here and discuss hypotheticals all day, but of more use is now deciding what this actually means. It means that the Blazers need to be ready to start the playoffs on the road, and more importantly, to have any hope of advancing, they need to win at least one game in Houston.
This is easier said than done, as the Blazers have not won in Houston for a whopping 518 days. They lost twice there this season, and their only win in Houston last season was in early November, and still required overtime to acquire the victory.
The Blazers need to figure out an effective plan against Houston. There is a reason the team is only 1-3 against them – Houston is a terrible matchup. Dwight Howard / quick centers in general are not Robin Lopez’s forte, and despite Wesley Matthews’ best efforts, James Harden’s brand of flop ball has sadly proved quite effective, earning at least nine free throws in three of the contests.
I saw both games that were in Portland live, and something that stood out both times was Head Coach Terry Stotts’ unwillingness to ever have LaMarcus Aldridge guard Howard. While he will never be known as an elite defender, as I have discussed before, Aldridge is sneakily more competent at defense than you might guess.
The bigger issue is that generally star players / premier offensive talents are assigned easier players to guard on defense. The reasons are twofold – one, it saves their energy for the offensive end, and two, it prevents them from picking up cheap fouls. This first issue, of fatigue, can be especially important for Aldridge, as he is featured so heavily (likely to a fault) in the Blazers’ offense.
When push comes to shove, though, I wonder if we’ll see a change of philosophy. There is nothing after the playoffs, and with elimination on the line, if I were the head coach (which I’m not) I would absolutely consider having Aldridge mark Howard late in games.
If not this specific, drastic action, Stotts still must figure out something new. The Blazers didn’t just lose three games to the Rockets, they lost pretty handedly – by 15, by 13, and by 5. It will be the time to pull out all the stops, and let us hope Stotts is up to the task.