By defeating the San Antonio Spurs 104-98, the Houston Rockets have swept the season series 4-0 and locked up the 4th seed in the Western Conference. There is no longer anything the Portland Trail Blazers can do to gain homecourt advantage in the playoffs. It does not matter if Portland wins and Houston loses on Wednesday to tie at 54-28, because the Rockets hold the season series 3-1. While disappointing, this was expected.
Now that we officially know who Portland will play and where they will play them, it is time to look ahead to the NBA playoffs (not to ignore the season finale against the Los Angeles Clippers that has yet to be played). Finishing with the 5th seed, the Trail Blazers have been rewarded with the worst matchup possible. Of the top-4 teams in the Western Conference, the Rockets are the only ones to win the season series with the Trail Blazers (though Clippers will be determined on Wednesday).
There are several reasons why Portland struggles with Houston. Most commonly acknowledged is the way in which the Trail Blazers match up with Dwight Howard… They don’t. As great as Robin Lopez has been for Portland all year, he’s fairly powerless to stop athletic, scoring bigs. Howard has averaged 25.5 points and 13.5 rebounds per game against the Trail Blazers this season. The Harden-Howard pick and roll is lethal.
Speaking of James Harden, his obnoxious style of play is tailor made to hamper the Trail Blazers. Yes, he’s one of the league’s best scorers, but it goes beyond that. Harden plays for the foul at all costs. Sometimes this means admirably putting his body on the line, but more often it means flopping like a pancake in a wind tunnel. Each time his head snaps back and the whistle blows, Portland must adjust their lineup for foul trouble. It’s very difficult to win a game, much less a playoff series, when you can’t rely on the rotation you planned for.
This problem is compounded by the Trail Blazers’ lack of depth; especially in the frontcourt. I can’t imagine Joel Freeland, who hasn’t played since February, or Meyers Leonard, who hasn’t played well since college doing much to slow down Howard or even Terrence Jones. In 3 of the 4 meetings between Portland and Houston this season, Lopez has finished the game with 5 fouls. This bodes particularly poorly for a team with no suitable relief players at the center position.
Yet the Trail Blazers’ problems are not limited to defense. Not theirs anyway. Rockets point guard Patrick Beverley has been a thorn in Damian Lillard’s side all year, holding him to an average of 38.6 percent shooting over four contests. Not at all what you want from your all-star point guard while your all-star power forward has to contend with a Dwightmare of his own.
Realistically, we’re looking at a probable first round exit at something like 2-4 for the series, but anything can happen in the NBA playoffs. I’m not going to count Portland out before their regular season is even over. In fact, this team has been so surprising, I wouldn’t count them out until they are actually out. They do have a few tools to help level the playing field, despite the trenches of depression I’ve dug in these last few paragraphs.
For starters, the Trail Blazers are an excellent free throw shooting team, with no starters averaging below 80.0 percent. The Rockets, on the other hand, have no big men that are reliable from the line (Howard: 54.5 percent, Jones: 59.9 percent, Omer Asik: 61.3 percent, Donatas Motiejunas: 58.7 percent). If late game fouling becomes necessary for either side, Portland has a tremendous advantage.
They also have LaMarcus Aldridge, who will get a relatively easy matchup with Jones while Lopez occupies Howard. Jones’ inability to adequately cover Aldridge on the left elbow is a big part of why Aldridge has averaged 26.7 points per game against him this season. This mismatch may be enough to keep Portland’s hopes alive, as the experienced vet is the best player to lead his team to victory.
In the meantime, it would be wise for Trail Blazers head coach Terry Stotts to rest Aldridge on Wednesday. There is no sense in risking injury to your brightest glimmer of playoff hope in a regular season game that has no bearing on the standings. There is only so much time left to rest up and prepare. Let’s hope Stotts has a few tricks up his sleeve to give his team a fighting chance. Who knows? Maybe they will live to see the second round.