The Trail Blazers are three wins away from their first playoff victory since I was in kindergarten. The next game is all but a must win for the Rockets, who otherwise face a 2-0 deficit headed back to the Moda Center. Mathematically, the odds are in Portland’s favor in this series now. How did that happen, and can it be repeated?
The general assumption headed into the series was that the Blazers were the less talented team, and that the matchups favored Houston. After one game, let’s look at how true the two biggest assumed matchup issues look after one game.
Dwight Howard will overwhelm Portland, especially Robin Lopez: Howard did not have a good game. 27 points on 21 shots and 17 free throws amounts to a .474 TS%. D12 got his, but used up too many possessions doing it. His shot chart:
All of D12’s shots were in close. It seems like the Blazers really can’t keep him out of the middle, but they can make things tough for him when he gets there. The nice thing about the Houston offense for the Blazers is that they aren’t the best at capitalizing on doubles in the post. Part of that is on Howard, who doesn’t have the vision passing out that Tim Duncan (or even Aldridge) does. And part of it is on the Rockets’ players and coaches. The Portland offense, especially when Aldridge was at the height of his doubles-drawing prowess, relies on the looks LMA and the perimeter passing generate. Houston, also a threes-heavy team, gets most of theirs from scrambling transition defenses, and lacks the off-ball movement to take advantage at the doubles we throw into the post.
Also good news: even showing Howard the threat of a double seems to fluster him. He got around Lopez as easily as we expected, but if someone was waiting there, he’d force up a tough reverse layup and miss. Stotts did some clever things, like I hoped he would, to confuse Howard, and only once did it totally bite Portland in the butt. Even if the doubler was Matthews or Lillard, the extra presence would usually force a miss. I’m not totally convinced this is sustainable; Portland ordinarily refuses to double in the post, and it could simply be that Howard and the Rockets are ready for it.
Howard still presents a matchup issue for the Blazers. He remains much faster and stronger than anyone Portland can run at him. But it looks like Stotts has at least a working idea of how to offset that disadvantage without creating an opportunity for the Rockets elsewhere.
The Blazers have no answer for James Harden: Harden had a bad game too, going just 8-for-28 for 27 points. His shot chart for the night gives us some clues as to what might be sustainable.
See that circle in the middle? Out of your average 28 Harden shots, 10 come there. Last night, five did. As with Howard’s poor night, blame or credit can’t go 100% to one party. Harden was not as aggressive as he could have been going to the hoop, but there was also usually a Blazers big or two nearby. The last play of the game is a good example. Even without either starting big in the game, hard work from Batum and more-aggressive-than-usual trapping kept Harden from getting to the basket.
One advantage of Aldridge’s dominance in Game 1 is that the Rockets will probably have to give Asik-Howard lineups more burn. Part of the reason that pair is such a disaster offensively is that opposing bigs can hang near the paint, which causes huge issues for their slashing perimeter guys, Harden included.
However; it’s not all good news. Harden took seven threes from the left wing and hit a grand total of none. That’s an area where he usually shoots 38%, making this a trend Portland cannot bank on. That’s true of the entire arc, actually. He went 3/14 last night, after going for 37% on the year. There was a stretch in the third where Matthews left Harden alone beyond the arc several times, which gave him the opening to get hot. The Blazers were able to put a cap on it, but Wesley can’t keep getting away with Harden-esque D on Harden himself.
Howard and Harden struggled last night, to an extent that is probably unsustainable. But it also wasn’t a fluke. The Blazers know how to harass the two into less effective shots. I also hate to speculate about the psychology of teams, but I imagine it’s hugely demoralizing to constantly have to account for massive holes in the games of your two best players. Portland doesn’t come close in regulation without Hack-a-Howard, and Harden’s defense is one of the best comedies I’ve ever seen. These two still absolutely will give Portland issues, but they’re not unstoppable by any means.