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Ball Don’t Lie’s 2013-14 Playoff Previews: Houston Rockets vs. Portland Trail Blazers

The playoffs begin on Saturday, thankfully, which means it’s that lovely time of spring (and it is spring, right? It’s not going to snow again, is it?) when the minds behind Ball Don’t Lie offer you their thoughts on the upcoming pairings in the first round of the NBA’s postseason.

Kelly Dwyer’s Old Grey Whistle Test

The Houston Rockets ascended just as the Portland Trail Blazers descended over the second half of the season, but both teams ended 2013-14 with weird little stretches that should leave fans sufficiently pleased and intrigued with their first-round playoff series.

Portland’s playoff seeding status was all but assured, the team truly had little to play for over the last couple of weeks of the season, but the roster still reeled off nine wins in 10 tries. This included several wins over lottery teams that had little to play for, but one should note that the group shot back to life offensively against several very good playoff teams (Chicago, Golden State, Memphis) that had quite a bit to play for. And the team’s lone loss in that run came against a Phoenix Suns squad that was battling for a spot in the Western Conference bracket.

Houston ended its season by winning 25 of 34 games, a fantastic burst considering its Western Conference-heavy schedule, but what was once a near-top-10 squad defensively completely gave in to its lesser instincts down the stretch of the season. Just as with Portland, its fourth seed was well in hand, and the Rockets kept on winning in the season’s final few weeks, but also gave up games of 118, 130, 125  and 123 points -- and not in contests with super-exaggerated paces. Now, the team also spiked its scoring average and offensive efficiency rating during that time, but it’s a formidable trend to try to reverse just because games count now.

That’s Houston’s main criticism. Not the defensive end of things, but its focus. That the team was in purposeful purgatory in the years since Yao Ming’s departure while it gathered assets. That Dwight Howard is too goofy and/or too mopey to dominate games anymore. That Kevin McHale can’t be trusted when it comes to actually diagramming something in the final minutes. And that James Harden could let James K. Polk drop 30 on him.

That last one might not be much of a stretch, but even with that miserable defensive ending to the season, and despite a rather solid defensive turn in the final months of Portland’s season, the Rockets overall still ranked as a better defensive club than the Trail Blazers. Of course, Portland ranked higher than all but one club offensively, but the whole of the NBA’s orthodox set has been waiting with furrowed brow to see if Portland’s perimeter-heavy approach to things will carry over in the postseason.

If Houston plays like it did down the stretch? It just might. With that in place, even open 24-footers are hard to hit. One cold week, and Portland’s warming return to playoff form could be over.

For those that haven’t seen much of these teams this year, understand this will still be a hellaciously fun series even if the shots aren’t going in. The Blazers whip the ball around in ways that will remind you of Dallas’ championship turn in 2011. Dwight Howard absolutely dominated the well-intentioned Robin Lopez in the post this season, and the Rockets (rightfully) fire at will from behind the 3-point line. Rockets guard Patrick Beverley will charm you, even if he really is just playing on one knee right now, and you’ll be shocked the words “LaMarcus Aldridge” and “trading block” were ever uttered.

Of course, those two were put together mainly because Aldridge was unhappy with Portland’s stasis. This regular season changed all that.

Then again, a first-round ouster isn’t exactly what LMA is looking for. And it’s certainly not what Houston and Dwight Howard were expecting when they put pen to paper last July. This will be a fascinating series to watch.

Prediction: Houston in 6.

Dan Devine's One Big Question

Every postseason matchup has its own unique set of variables for each team, and prognosticator, to attempt to solve. Here's one that BDL's Dan Devine has been mulling over.

Who can get stops when it counts?

Probably not James Harden.

(We have fun.)

The Rockets and Blazers ranked fourth and fifth, respectively, in the NBA in points scored per possession this season. Both teams shoot a ton of 3-pointers, with Houston leading the league in attempts per game and Portland finishing third; behind high-volume, high-accuracy shooting seasons from point guard Damian Lillard and shooting guard Wesley Matthews, both of whom fired more than 500 long balls and hit better than 39 percent of them, the Blazers had the NBA's 10th-best 3-point percentage, while the Rockets tied for a middle-of-the-pack 15th.

The Rockets get to the free-throw line more than anyone else in the league, due in part to Harden's knack for drawing whistles and in part to opponents' love for intentionally fouling Dwight Howard. The jump-shot-happy Blazers attempted about 7 1/2 fewer freebies a game, but made only two fewer, because they were the most accurate free-throw-shooting team in the league this season; only Portland (81.5 percent) and the Oklahoma City Thunder (80.6 percent) made better than four out of five from the charity stripe as a team.

In all four games of the regular-season series between Houston and Portland -- three of which went to the Rockets -- the winner scored at least 110 points. All-Star off-guard Harden went bananas against Matthews and Nicolas Batum, averaging 30.3 points, 7.3 rebounds and 5.3 assists per game against the Blazers while shooting 48.1 percent from the floor, 45.5 percent from 3 and 85.7 percent from the line. All-Star four man LaMarcus Aldridge roasted Rockets power forward Terrence Jones (and whoever else Kevin McHale threw out there) to the tune of 26.8 points and 15.5 rebounds per game against Houston. Big numbers will be put up on the board by big names; this is a promise.

The key, then, will be which squad can tighten up most effectively when it's time to get serious. Your gut tells you that's going to be the Rockets, who employ one of the league's top perimeter pests in point guard Patrick Beverley, and who gave Howard an awful lot of money this past summer to turn in Defensive Player of the Year-caliber paint deterrence. Whether Dwight was quite that good this year is a matter of debate, but Houston did take a step forward on the defensive end, ranking 12th in the league in points allowed per possession after tying for 16th last season.

But while the knock on Terry Stotts' Blazers for much of this season was that they didn't have the defensive mettle to match up with their top-flight offense, quiet as it's kept, Portland was the league's 10th-best defense after the All-Star break. As a matter of fact, they actually fared far better against playoff-bound opposition than Houston did during the season's final two months. And though he's known more for his hair and general goofiness than his defensive prowess, Blazers center Robin Lopez ranks among the league's most effective rim protectors, holding opponents to just 42.5 percent on shot attempts at the basket when he's in the neighborhood, an elite number among heavy-minute big men; while Portland's perimeter D might spring leaks on attacks by the likes of Harden, Chandler Parsons and Jeremy Lin, Lopez has proven to be a capable lane-clogger and mistake-eraser.

The issue for Portland, though, is the lack of reliable help behind Lopez. Portland's been about three points-per-100 worse when Lopez has left the floor this season, and while the Blazers outscored the Rockets by three points in 119 minutes with Lopez on the court during their four meetings, they had their doors blown off when he sat, getting outscored by 29 points in 78 minutes. Stotts doesn't have an Omer Asik to turn to when his primary defensive big man needs a rest. What he's got is Joel Freeland, fresh off missing more than two months with a sprained medial collateral ligament in his right knee; the athletic but raw Thomas Robinson, who's capable of providing bursts of energy and tempo-changing play, but is undersized and outgunned against the Howard-Asik duo; and Meyers Leonard, who, if all goes according to plan for the Blazers, figures to do little more than cheer on his teammates in this series.

On top of that, Houston's been by far the better defensive team in "clutch" situations -- identified by NBA.com's stat tool as games in which the score is within five points in the final five minutes -- this season. McHale's squad has allowed just 100.2 points per 100 possessions over 163 such minutes this year, the fourth-best mark in the NBA, compared to 105.2-per-100 for Portland, which ranks 20th among 30 teams. And while the Blazers' close-and-late performance has improved amid their post-All-Star-break rise -- they've allowed 101 points-per-100, ninth-best in the league -- so has Houston's, dropping to 99.2-per-100, good for No. 7 since mid-February. That suggests that the Rockets, too, have another level they can get to when it matters most, and that their level's a bit higher than Portland's.

No matter which team's defensive marks are more indicative of true aptitude -- Houston's superior full-season ranking or the Blazers' post-All-Star surge -- it's unlikely that we're going to see much lockdown work in this matchup. But if it comes down to getting crucial stops at critical times, I'm betting on Howard, Beverley and the Rockets to carry the day in what ought to be a sensationally entertaining series.

Prediction: Rockets in 7.

Eric Freeman’s Guide to Playoff Watchability

Over the next two months, basketball fans will hear all manner of insights into key matchups, x-factors, and other series-deciding phenomena. For most people, though, watching so much basketball is a luxury or bizarre form of punishment, not a fact of life. These brave souls must know one thing: is this game between 10 men in pajamas worth the time? Eric Freeman’s Guide to Playoff Watchability attempts to answer this difficult question.

As usual, the West’s 4/5 matchup is the cream of the first-round crop. If you like offense, this series should have it — the Rockets and Blazers rank fifth and sixth in the NBA in points-per-possession, respectively, and both are in the top 10 in pace. For that matter, both teams shoot lots of three-pointers, which suggests the series will have its fair share of runs and unsafe leads. The Rockets are apparent favorites for their superior talent level and better performance over the second half of the season, but the Blazers’ raucous home crowd could be its own advantage in their three games at Portland. However long it goes, this series will not be tame.

Beyond any basketballular consideration, it features its share of intriguing personalities. Coming off his first All-Star season and a massive new contract with Adidas, Damian Lillard stands to become a more prominent national figure with several big games. LaMarcus Aldridge has cooled off from his near-MVP form over the first few months, but his battles with likely defender Dwight Howard could be the series’ deciding matchup.

Meanwhile, the Rockets’ roster is almost overstuffed. Howard can reclaim some amount of public favor after two thoroughly annoying seasons in Orlando and Los Angeles. James Harden, one of the most dynamic scorers in the league, is liable to go off for 45 points and be responsible for just as many on the other end. The most watchable figure of all may be Rockets point guard Patrick Beverley, an indefatigable defender and all-around pest who has already started talking trash to Lillard. Don’t be surprised to see him engaged in some sort of altercation early in the series.

It’s unclear which of these players or storylines will take center stage during the series, but the surfeit of options suggests we’re in for a treat.

Rating: 10 out of 10 Personalized Candy Pinball Machines

Prediction: Houston in 7.

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