The Houston Rockets, down three games to one in their NBA playoff series against the Portland Trail Blazers, could very well have already been eliminated. In game three, with the score tied in the closing seconds, undrafted rookie Troy Daniels, who had only played in five regular season games and did not play in games one or two, hit the go-ahead three pointer. In Game Four, Daniels went 4/5 from beyond three and nearly helped his team to another victory, which they lost in overtime. Now the Rockets face a must win at home, with Portland looking to end the series as soon as possible.
Most valuable player of the series so far absolutely has to be LaMarcus Aldridge. After a pair of 40 point games, Aldridge has quieted down by putting up “only” 26 points and 10 rebounds over the last two meetings. Perhaps most impressive is that Aldridge has shot 53 percent in the series. Houston has tried many different defenders on him, with the best results coming from Omer Asik, who was able to slow him down, though not quite stop him.
It is hard to say that Portland has outright dominated Houston, because three of the games have gone to overtime. The Trail Blazers could just as easily be down three games to one themselves, but have escaped thanks to some clutch play on their end, and a few big missed shots by the Rockets. In Game One, James Harden missed a potential game winner at the end of regulation, and in Game Four the Rockets could not even get a shot off down by three at the end of overtime.
The key to Game Five for both teams is without a doubt James Harden. Harden is a big time scorer, and one of, if not the best, two-guards in the NBA. The trouble with his style of play, which involves a hefty amount of shooting, is that slumps and bad games look really bad. Harden has actually been fairly successful in the mid-range, but has yet to find his three point stroke and has had trouble finishing around the rim.
It does not help to simply look at Harden’s counting stats and decide that he is playing fine. In spite of his 27.5 points per game in the playoffs being two points better than his regular season average, Harden has needed four more three-point attempts and more than nine additional shots per game to reach that tally. The left-handed guard is trying to shoot his way out of his slump, and it is hurting his team even more. The NBA playoffs are not the time or place to do that.
Harden needs to see things change in one of two ways. One way is simply hoping his slump ends, either through hot shooting or getting more foul calls to get to the free throw line. The other is he can become a play maker for Dwight Howard, Chandler Parsons, and his other teammates, which he is more than capable of. The Rockets are backed against a wall, he cannot have another inefficient, high-volume performance.
The Trail Blazers have done just what they needed to the entire series, getting big games out of Damian Lillard and Aldridge, seeing improved third and fourth option scoring as the games have progressed, and not sending Harden to the free throw line too frequently. Everything going into Game Five is in their favor, even the fact that they are once again on the road in Houston, where they have won two games this series.
The Rockets can be expected to come out ready to play. After another crushing defeat they have no choice but to enter the game supremely focused. Expect another tight game in a series that has had three overtime games already, but Portland has the upper hand. Houston should take Game Five at home, but Portland is going to close out this series one way or the other, particularly with one more opportunity on their home turf.
Commentary by Brian Moore