If star players are what NBA fans want to see in the playoffs, the upcoming series between the Houston Rockets and the Portland Trail Blazers is going to deliver. The two teams had four all-stars between them, and a number of other big name players. Houston edged out Portland for the four seed and home court advantage in what should be a high-scoring series.
The Rockets made the biggest splash of the last off-season when they signed the league’s best center in Dwight Howard, to pair with their big acquisition from the summer before, James Harden. The result was a nine win year-to-year improvement. General Manager Daryl Morey has very carefully assembled a roster to suit a particular style of play, and the results cannot be argued with.
Houston had the second best offense by points this past season with 107.7 per game, and they operate in a very specific manner that is coached all the way down to their D-League affiliate. Statistically, it has been shown that long two-pointers are the least efficient shot from the field overall. The Rockets take the fewest long twos in the NBA, opting instead to get it inside or shoot from three-point range. Their play style is reflected in their numbers, as they led the NBA in both free throw attempts and threes. The efficiency of the team allowed them to score the second most points in the league with the fifth fewest field goal attempts.
The Trail Blazers also score at a high rate, but with a bit more structure. Where Houston allows James Harden to do a lot of shot creating, the Blazers use more ball movement and set shots. Damian Lillard is a more than capable creator and scorer when he needs to be, but that than takes the ball out of the hands of the Blazers’ other star, LaMarcus Aldridge. Portland needs things to run smoothly or they become much more inefficient, whereas Houston can always fall back on creating a mismatch with Howard or running an isolation with Harden. The two teams are fairly close numbers wise, but if all else is equal then Harden and Howard are in theory more difficult to stop than Aldridge and Lillard.
One of Portland’s big advantages actually comes from a deficiency in the game of Howard: free throw shooting. Houston has many great free throw shooters, but as a whole are dragged down by their big man and his back-ups on the bench, while Portland shot the best percentage in the NBA. The Blazers are also one of the best rebounding teams in the league, with Houston just behind them. Offensive rebounding can help Portland get extra possessions, something that will be especially important if they are having a poor shooting game.
The season series swung Houston’s way as they won three out of four contests, two of which were by 13 or more points. Their last match was back on March 9, an overtime game won by the Rockets. As far as momentum goes, Portland enters the playoffs on a five game win streak and only one loss in their last 10 games. Houston comes in a little more up and down, but the past week has brought the return of both Patrick Beverly and Howard to the lineups. The two teams enter their head to head match-up healthy.
Game one of the series is in Houston on Easter Sunday, April 20 at 8:30 PM local time. Do not look for either team to come out trying to feel the other out. This is not the NCAA Tournament, where one game decides who moves on. Both teams are going to come out gunning as they try to outlast each other over a potential seven games. Aside from their season long advantage over the Trail Blazers, the Rockets were 33-8 at home on the year. They should and will be favored in every home match. Even without home court they would be the better bet to take the series, but having an extra game in Houston only cements that fact. The Rockets will win game one at home, then go on to win the series in the first round of the NBA playoffs, 4-1.
Commentary by Brian Moore