Blazers/Rockets Series Preview
The Rockets want the monkey off their back.
In a playoff year that is chock full of entertaining first round match-ups, the showdown between the fourth-seeded Portland Trail Blazers and Houston Rockets has to be at the top. The young and fearless Blazers head into the Playoffs with momentum. And that monkey you see on TV this week? It’s not Peter Jackson’s King Kong, but the expectations that come with a Rockets team that has been knocked out of the first round six consecutive seasons.
The Trail Blazers have been tagged as the team of the future and rightly so. Their blend of youth and a defensive mindset has them maturing rapidly. Their small market background prevents them from getting the cred they deserve, but the one-two combo of Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge is just now blossoming. The inexperience of the Blazers is going to be a factor many will bring up, but it could actually help a team that is ignorant to how big the moment is. They also have home court advantage to fall back on, and for a team that went 34-7 at the Rose Garden this season, that is a Fast and Furious style boost. They’re also one of the few teams that could give the L.A. Lakers a battle if they get to the second round, assuming L.A. runs through Utah.
The Rockets may play in Houston, but they’re the equivalent of the 2008 Dallas Cowboys. You have the T.O.-esque diva, Tracy McGrady, who bounced back and forth before finally ending his season to get knee surgery. Then there is the Pacman Jones type, Ron Artest, who has the ability to break down his opponent, or just plain break down. And what would a Cowboys comparison be without the Tony Romo of H-Town, Yao Ming? For all of the buzz and stats he brings, Yao has not found a way to turn that into playoff success. The Cowboys haven’t won a playoff game since 1996. The Rockets haven’t won a series since 1997. Now the team has to prove that they can shake the pressure building after so much playoff futility. They blew a golden opportunity in the last game of the regular season, losing to the Dallas Mavericks and dropping to the fifth seed.
Point guard: Steve Blake vs. Aaron Brooks
Blazers’ PG Steve Blake won’t get any nicknames based on his game, though we could call him Shake N’ Blake if he had a crossover. But Blake is reliable, averaging 5 apg, and has big game experience, helping the Maryland Terrapins win an NCAA title in college, and he is a .427 three-point shooter this season.
The Rockets let Rafer Alston go in favor of a two-headed PG attack of Aaron Brooks and Kyle Lowry. It’s paid off and Brooks and Lowry’s slashing style could keep Blake on his heels. Could is the key word, as Brooks and Lowry both make bad plays from time to time.
Shooting guard: Brandon Roy vs. Ron Artest
Brandon Roy has become one of the most complete shooting guards in the game, and has already put the dagger in the Rockets’ hearts once this season, nailing a shot to beat them in overtime on November 6. He’s selfless, a great defender and can drive or get a shot any time he wants.
Artest doesn’t have the smooth stroke that Roy does, but his all-around game also makes him a top-tier player. Few players commit to defense the way Artest does, but offensively he tends to settle too often for perimeter shots. If he uses his muscle to drive to the basket, the Blazers might be in trouble as they will have to ease up on double-teaming Yao.
Small Forward: Nicolas Batum vs. Shane Battier
Batum rose up draft boards this season based on his potential, getting drafted by the Rockets with the 25th pick before being sent to Portland. He’s a smart player that can hit the three but is still raw offensively.
Battier is a cerebral veteran that isn’t afraid to knock down the baseline three, or step into the lane to kill an opponent’s momentum with a charge. Battier has experience and guts.
Power Forward: LaMarcus Aldridge vs. Luis Scola
Aldridge has a great inside-outside game for a player his size, and at 6-11 he has the chance to really get into Scola’s head. Watch tape of Dirk Nowitzki using Scola Wednesday night and you’ll know just what I am talking about. He is the second scorer the Trail Blazers are going to need if and when the Rockets commit to shutting down Roy.
Scola is one of the toughest players in the NBA and was my dark horse pick for Rookie of the Year last season. He pounds the glass and can hit the mid-range jumper. He’s not the scorer that Aldridge is but he can make up for that by doing all the little things glue guys must do to get their teams deep into the playoffs.
Advantage: Trail Blazers
Center: Joel Przybilla vs. Yao Ming
I used to watch Rockets games and wonder if a young Przybilla would ever get playing time. He does now for Portland. No disrespect, which always means a diss is coming, but his job will be to punish Yao and commit six good fouls. Yao is superior to Przybilla in every way and determined to get the Rockets out of the first round. He must stay aggressive though or the Rockets are going home early.
Bench: Outlaw/Oden/Rodriguez/Fernandez vs. Lowry/Wafer/Landry/Hayes
The Blazers’ bench is filled with young talent like Travis Outlaw and Rudy Fernandez that could all start for a lottery team. The Rockets’ bench has energetic players like Carl Landry and Von Wafer (whose name makes me hungry every time I hear it). But can they translate that energy into production? We’re unsure.
Advantage: Trail Blazers
Coach: Nate McMillan vs. Rick Adelman
McMillan is going to win Coach of the Year honors within the next five seasons. Mark it down. He gets the most out of his team and has them supremely confident right now. But Adelman has two decades of coaching experience, taking the Blazers to the NBA Finals twice when he coached them. He also found a way to keep this team focused amidst distractions from T-Mac and the shooting of Carl Landry.
Prediction: Trail Blazers in 7
There’s almost no difference between these teams statistically. The Blazers are 34-7 at home. The Rockets are 33-8. Both teams are 20-21 on the road. The Trail Blazers average 99.4 ppg and give up 94.1 per game. The Rockets average 98.4 ppg and give up 94.4 a night. So it comes down to two factors: home court advantage and who has the least pressure. Portland wins both categories and it will end up costing Houston, as the chants of Choke City will haunt them again.