Scouting Update: Rockets-Blazers, Gm 5
In Game 4, Portland again proved its ability to respond to a beatdown with an improved effort, even if it didn't get the win. Responding to disappointment defines the NBA playoff journey, as Houston well knows. Portland dug deep to fight hard, but Houston dug deeper and fought harder for the 89-88 win.
• Sixteen offensive rebounds. Twenty-eight second-chance points. I'd guess those numbers -- what the Blazers allowed the Rockets -- are written in red on the whiteboard in the Blazers' locker room right now. The Blazers had position to grab many of those rebounds, but they were a step slow and some muscle short. Portland has to do a better job of anticipating where the ball is going and then rushing, with fists clenched (in a sense), to that spot.
• If Greg Oden or Joel Przybilla turns over the ball near the rim, the Blazers have no time to hang their heads, as Yao Ming is deceptively fast and will fly down the floor. And Houston will find him.
• The Blazers are trying and often succeeding at keeping Yao from deep post-ups, but they might be better off picking their denial spots more specifically. He has not been as effective a scorer on the blocks but is killing them when he catches the ball in the middle, especially on the re-post. So Portland's defenders have to stay ready on the first kick-out. And the nearest helper can anticipate that re-post pass and look to step into that passing lane.
• The Blazers have the rough-enough duty of hitting Yao early, bumping him outside as best they can and then dealing with what to do once he catches the ball. But if Houston grabs an offensive board and resets, Portland must also reset and get its best big defender on Yao. In tight games, every time someone like Travis Outlaw or LaMarcus Aldridge checks him because of a slip-up in relocating, it has very negative potential.
• The Blazers have seemed content to let others carry the offense so as to buy time for Brandon Roy. But Roy needs to take a page from Kobe Bryant's Game 4 in Utah and set the tone for his team right away. No need for him to score necessarily, but Roy as the playmaker gives the Blazers their best offensive punch.
• Luis Scola is making huge play after huge play. Someone from Portland needs to step up and announce, "I'm not letting that guy beat us." Then he has to go out and do it.
• Just as Portland will look to improve its defensive rebounding efforts, so too must Houston anticipate that Portland, the league's second-best offensive rebounding team in the regular season, will come up with its best efforts on the glass of the series. Rick Adelman likely will preach "five guys on the glass."
• The Rockets will expect big Portland runs and must not let that emotion chase them out of their game plan. Patience, ball reversals and constantly looking for Yao inside is the plan. They must work to curb Ron Artest if he goes on a shot-shopping spree. He's made just 16 of his past 48 shots (3-of-14 from the 3), and a quarter of those came early in Game 2. No single adjustment for Houston trumps this one item: Artest can shoot the Rockets right into a Game 6.
• On the other hand, Artest as a facilitator is terrific -- he had nine assists in Game 4.
• Kyle Lowry shot poorly in Game 4, but his three offensive rebounds helped set the tone for the game. If Aaron Brooks struggles, Lowry could get a call earlier than usual to help right the ship. In general, Adelman might be more liberal with his substitutions, hoping to keep his regulars fresh come the fourth quarter. In high-emotion games like elimination games, with frenzied crowds, it's easier to get fatigued on the road.
• Houston went away from mostly featuring Yao to more ball-screen actions later in Game 4, with less success. This could be reversed in Game 5, getting everyone involved early and then pounding Yao late.
• If the Blazers try to extend their defense into the passing lanes, using the crowd's energy to help them play better defense, Houston's bigs have to be greedy receivers as pressure-release men. But simply passing diagonally against the pressure and not trying to score against it would be a mistake. Houston should punish Portland if it defends that way.
• Rudy Fernandez is dying to be a difference-maker -- and this is the perfect time for him to step up and be that guy.
• Portland was a perfect 17-for-17 from the line, shot 46 percent from the field and shot 47 percent from the 3 in Game 4, and still lost. What might happen if its shooting disappears?
• Will the Rockets relax a bit knowing they have to win just one game in three? Or if the Blazers jump up big early, will they relax and start thinking about winning Game 6 at home? Or will they continue to grind things out possession by possession?
• Ron Artest. When he's happy to be just another key player, he's dynamic. When he's determined to be the go-to guy, he's capable of wrecking Houston's offensive rhythm.
The Blazers are a very game, talented team. I'm very impressed with them and their future. It's hard to imagine they will not play their best overall game to keep their season alive. But with the way Houston is defending, the Rockets always have a chance to earn a victory. I see this as another coin-flip game.
Prediction: Portland wins Game 5
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.
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