Here we go, ladies and gentlemen. Tonight at 6:30 p.m. PDT the Portland Trail Blazers will kick off their 2014 NBA Playoffs on the road against the Houston Rockets. The game will be nationally televised on TNT, so if you’ve refused to bow to our Comcastic overlords thus far, you’re in luck. The playoffs are a magical time of year when each team to make the cut gets a prime spot on the biggest stage.
Hopefully, the Trail Blazers will be able to make the most of this opportunity. They haven’t qualified to participate in the post-season since the days of Brandon Roy (2011) and the Rockets have given them fits all year. How many times have you read the words “matchup Dwightmare” in the past week or so? If you’re a return reader, the answer is a lot, and I should probably find a new phrasing.
The James Harden, Dwight Howard tandem is the scariest the Trail Blazers will face in the West for several reasons outlined here. The abridged version reads something like: “Harden exploits Portland’s depth issues by drawing a stupefying quantity of fouls, and Howard makes Robin Lopez look like Robin Thicke at a feminist rally.” The Trail Blazers must work extra hard to avoid embarrassment.
Perhaps that is an advantage. Most everyone with a basketball mind and a podium to speak it is expecting Portland to stumble out of the blocks (granted, for good reason). However, you don’t start an NBA season 22-4 on luck, nor do you end one 9-1 by the same token. The Trail Blazers have rediscovered their groove and could be formidable enough to surprise the Rockets with some razzle-dazzle of their own.
Things to watch for
How the Trail Blazers guard Harden
Wesley Matthews will get this assignment most of the time, but the Trail Blazers like to use Damian Lillard and Mo Williams in combination from time to time too. Problem being, neither of them can defend Harden with consistent adequacy and poor Nicolas Batum can’t play 48 minutes a game in order to help out on D when Matthews is resting. Pay attention to what works best as head coach Terry Stotts makes necessary adjustments.
How the Trail Blazers guard Howard
This one is of equal importance. If RoLo hits any sort of foul trouble/fatigue, the jig is up. Meyers Leonard and Joel Freeland are ill-prepared to defend Howard for any stretch more than 0 seconds long. Aldridge may get pushed to Dwight from occasionally, but we don’t want that either. Perhaps using Leonard as a foul sponge on the 54.7 percent free throw shooter is a viable option?
How Lillard handles Patrick Beverley
Beverley is the worst kind of puppy-dogger in that he’s very good at it. Lillard will have no room to execute with Beverley crowding him up top. The Trail Blazers cannot let Lillard be neutralized if they hope to stand a chance. He’s their second leading scorer and anything resembling a repeat of December 12th (where Beverley held him to 1-10 shooting) will not cut it in the playoffs. Lillard has to have an impact on the scoreboard.
How comfortable the Trail Blazers look
More than half of the roster has never played an NBA playoff game. Those of us watching yesterday saw an inexperienced Toronto Raptors team make silly, late-game mistakes to lose to the visiting Brooklyn Nets in a close one. The Portland Trail Blazers cannot look green if we are to see black and red emerge victorious. That being said, I can’t wait to see what this squad is capable of.