The Houston Rockets and Portland Trail Blazers will kick off their much-anticipated first-round series on Sunday night in Houston. During the regular season, Houston won three of four matchups between the two squads, thanks in large part to a magnificent fourth-quarter comeback that helped them top the Blazers in overtime on March 9.
In what will certainly be one of the more evenly-matched series of the first round, the Houston-Portland playdate will also double as one of the more exciting opening-round battles, as both teams finished in the top four in points scored per game this season (Houston was second and Portland was fourth).
Here are the keys to the series in my eyes and from the opposing view of Blazers writer Chris Reichert of Hoopshabit.com and Crabdribbles.com:
James Harden vs. Wesley Matthews
Reichert and I agree that this is the matchup that will sway the series one way or another. Harden is a top-five offensive player who is possibly playing his best ball of the season right now. In his last 14 games, Harden has averaged a whopping 28.7 points, 8.4 assists, 4.9 rebounds and 2.0 steals on 46 percent shooting from the floor, 41 percent from 3-point land and 90 percent from the stripe.
Meanwhile, Matthews has averaged a career-high 16.4 points per game this season while draining 39 percent of his long balls. As Rockets fans (and members of the Corey Brewer fan club) know, Harden can be exposed defensively, so it will be of the utmost importance that Matthews is consistently attacking the basket and looking for his long-range shot.
Reichert pointed out that “Matthews averaged 20.3 points per game against Houston this season, which was his third-highest total against any team.” This bodes well for Blazers fans.
Robin Lopez’s Foul Trouble
In three of the four regular season contests, Lopez committed five fouls, so it’s something to keep an eye on. Without Lopez, Portland is either forced to go small (with LaMarcus Aldridge at the five) or insert fringe-NBA guys like Joel Freeland or Meyers Leonard.
However, Reichert doesn’t anticipate Lopez struggling with fouls, citing the fact that “Lopez averaged 29.8 minutes per game this year against Houston, only a three-minute drop-off from his regular-season average.”
Houston has invested a lot of money in its bench, but the unit struggles mightily with consistency. Omer Asik is a luxury to have as a backup, but Jeremy Lin has been up and down all year and guys like Omri Casspi, Francisco Garcia and Donatas Motiejunas are average backups at best.
On the other side, Portland’s bench is one of the weaker units in the league, with only Mo Williams averaging more than five points per game during the regular season. When asked what he expects from the bench during the series, Reichert responded “The bench? Pfff. Zero.” Yeah, Portland’s bench is that weak.
Patrick Beverley’s Impact on Damian Lillard, Especially in the Clutch
Beverley is at home defending guys like Lillard. The two have a lot of bad blood stemming from the March 9 matchup, and everyone expects that bad blood to continue in the postseason (early and often). Lillard is going to score his points and no one can stop him from averaging 20 a night, but what Beverley does to Lillard in the clutch will be a gigantic variable.
Aldridge, despite having a favorable matchup against Terrence Jones, has proven time and time again that he isn’t a clutch player. Lillard, who is only in his second year, has become the go-to guy in crunch time, with Matthews making a fair share of big-time shots this year too. I expect Beverley to knock Lillard off his game, especially in crunch time, which is a big part of why I believe Houston will win the series.
Reichert tends to disagree, explaining that “Lillard has gone 7-of-15 from the field and 3-of-6 from 3-point land in the last 30 seconds of games with Portland trailing by five or less … Lillard is the clutch master for Portland.”
Regardless, I’ve got Houston in seven. It’s safe to say that Reichert doesn’t agree.