Scouting Update: Rockets-Blazers Gm 2
Portland came into the playoffs riding a six-game winning streak, and it had a six-game streak at home, too. But a "reset" button is typically pressed once the playoffs begin, and Houston pressed it by playing the same kind of defense we saw from them last postseason. Nate McMillan has to do some mental reparations, not just strategic ones, to help his young team play with confidence in Game 2.
• The Blazers decided not to deny Yao Ming early, consistent with how they played most of the time in the regular season. That proved to be a bad mistake, as it allowed him not only to catch the ball with minimal effort, but also to gain better position in the process. Making Yao work harder for position can effectively wear him down, and by denying him to some extent, it forces him out farther away from the basket to get open.
• One of the big benefits to playing behind a center in the post is that your weakside defenders do not have to be aware of potential lob passes. If the Blazers decide to front Yao more, those help defenders have to be more alert for the over-the-top pass, meaning they will be more susceptible to screens and flash cuts.
• Portland may look to play behind Yao on occasion, mixing up its coverages and sending a second guy to pinch him, which we didn't really see in Game 1.
• Stopping Aaron Brooks' penetration has to be just as much a priority as slowing down Yao. Brooks hit five 3s in eight attempts, but it was his constant attacking style that had the Blazers on their heels all game. He and Carl Landry often turned down their ball screen, beating their man in the process. Portland needs to be more ready for this action and bump them back outside.
• When Portland ran ball screens for Brandon Roy, using the man defended by Yao as the screener, Yao stayed back in a "contain" coverage. This gives Roy the chance either to build momentum and attack Yao, which he did often, or to drive and pull up for a midrange jumper, which he did not do as often. Pulling up more in Game 2 could drag Yao out farther, giving the Blazers a rebounding advantage inside and exposing Yao more to drives later in the game. If he can hang back and wait for Roy to come to him, he's not in nearly as much jeopardy of fouling.
• Portland did a poor job of moving the ball from one side to the other, and Houston's help defenders were almost always ready to pounce into action. Getting ball movement, or running more screening actions quickly, keeps those defenders more locked into their own man and thus less able to offer help quickly.
• LaMarcus Aldridge could not get any angle around Luis Scola or Landry on back-ins, but he looked more comfortable facing them up later in the game. I'd expect to see him try that more in the series.
• Roy missed some transition trips and some defensive assignments early in the game and looked tired. He had to do too much for his team on offense in the first quarter.
• Artest could post Nicolas Batum more; the first time he did ended in an "and 1" and didn't occur until five minutes were left in the first. Artest can do a lot more inside than he did overall, as he pulled down just one defensive board and did not get an offensive rebound. It's fair to assume that Houston won't shoot better than 58 percent in Game 2, so prioritizing more activity on the offensive glass is the right counter.
• The Blazers were not disciplined enough on many screening or transition actions, getting caught in bad switches. But Houston rarely took advantage, settling for long jumpers in most cases. If Brooks is caught with a big man defending him, the answer is attacking the rim or pulling up after a quick drive. And Artest should always take smaller guys inside, whether by backing in or driving.
• Brooks was all over the place on defense, leaving Steve Blake open and really helping on the boards. If Portland is more focused on occupying him by featuring Blake in pin-down sets, then Houston has to designate someone else to serve as the "rover." Scola is a great candidate, and did it some in Game 1, but the risk of leaving Aldridge unattended is big.
• Brooks and Landry relaxed mentally too often in the second half, thanks to the large lead. Brooks in particular needs to assume that Game 2 will be a dogfight and stay mentally sharp.
• Portland can feature some very intricate offensive sets, using multiple screens from different spots or the same area, but rarely employed them in the first game. Instead, they elected to go with simple stuff and ended up getting locked into isolation looks, which plays perfectly into Houston's defense. The Rockets must expect far better actions in Game 2 and be alert and communicative. Missed assignments early can lead to a big Blazers run, and then the crowd becomes far more of a factor.
• Dikembe Mutombo was huge at keeping Oden off the glass and was a big part of the win. Can he bring the same energy and productivity for the entire series?
• Brooks played one of the best games of his career, so it's hard to expect anything similar going forward. But Von Wafer and Landry, both capable of putting up big numbers, shot a combined 1-for-8.
• Now that Roy knows exactly how Houston wants to defend him, he can put together a strategy to have a huge game. It does not look like any Rockets player can contain him. It would not be a surprise if he scored 40 points in Game 2.
• The Portland crowd reminded me of a Golden State playoff game a few years ago; it clearly could have been a difference-maker if the game had been closer.
Even if Houston does not play nearly as well and Portland plays much better, Houston can win. The Rockets' ability to defend gives them that chance. But I expect the Portland crowd, along with Roy, to carry the day and survive Game 2.
Prediction: Portland wins Game 2
David Thorpe is an NBA analyst for Scouts Inc. and the executive director of the Pro Training Center in Clearwater, Fla., where he oversees the player development program for more than 40 NBA, European and D-League players. Those players include Kevin Martin, Rob Kurz, Luol Deng, Courtney Lee and Tyrus Thomas. To e-mail him, click here.
Synergy Sports Technology systems were used in the preparation of this report.
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