- David Thorpe, NBA
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Everyone has been waiting for, and expecting, Portland's rise in the West. That it came this year, and as a top-four seed, may be a bit surprising, but there is no doubt that the Blazers are deep and talented.
Houston, meanwhile, played well over the last few months of the season and is probably a bit surprised it ended up as a 5-seed. The weight of not getting out of Round 1 is heavy, but the opponent is not Utah, which the Rockets are probably happy about.
One quick item about home-court advantage: A vastly undermanned Rockets team was good enough to beat Utah in Salt Lake City in last season's playoffs one time. So it bears watching how quickly Portland's young guys can absorb the heightened intensity of the postseason.
Houston offense versus Portland defense
Houston is 16th in offense (105.4 points per 100 possessions) and Portland is 10th in defense (104.5 points per 100).
The Rockets feature Yao Ming on offense, working to isolate him inside for a bucket or a cut/kickout, typically on the left block so he can turn to his right-handed jump hook from the middle. But the Portland bigs often don't need help on Yao post-ups, using their good size and length to make the shot difficult for Yao.
Yao also hangs around the rim a lot, forcing teams to account for him on the glass, where he hurt Portland this season.
Houston will also let Aaron Brooks push the pace, but the Rockets rarely take quick shots -- except for Von Wafer, who gets the majority of his shots in transition or early offense. The Rockets will run pinch-post action as well with all of their bigs, and they do an excellent job of ball reversal out of it, so Portland has to defend both the early and later actions with discipline.
The battle on this side of the offensive boards will tell a strong tale, as Portland should be able to defend Houston's first shot pretty well.
Portland offense versus Houston defense
Portland had the league's second-best offense (110.7 points per 100 possessions) while Houston had the league's fourth-strongest defense (101.4 points allowed per 100).
No first-round matchup is better than this, with two top-five squads on opposite sides of the ball butting heads. Portland is a bit of an enigma, supposedly playing at the league's second-slowest pace, but in reality the Blazers push a lot and have that low ranking because of their elite level of offensive rebounding (tops in the NBA).
Steve Blake, Batum, Rudy Fernandez, Brandon Roy, Outlaw and LaMarcus Aldridge all love to race the floor, but they don't take bad shots. Houston's bigs can't get lazy in transition, needing to get back so their guards can leave the paint and find shooters like Fernandez and Blake.
In the half court, Portland runs lots of great sets, flopping wings and screening screeners to create open shots or driving lanes. Houston should defend these well, as it has veteran guys who understand their defensive strategies. The offensive boards are huge on this side of the floor as well, with Portland being the best team on the offensive glass in the NBA and Houston being the second best on the defensive boards.
Brooks: Brooks became the starter when Rafer Alston was traded to Orlando, and he ended up starting 34 games for Houston. He's a good 3-point shooter (36.6 percent), but not so good finishing otherwise (40.3 percent). Brooks is tiny and ultraquick, and is developing into a reliable point guard who can run an offense and avoid turnovers. But he must be careful not to overpenetrate against the length and size of Portland inside. He averaged 16 ppg against the Blazers this season, hitting six 3s.
Blake: Enjoyed the best season of his career, making over 42 percent of his 3s and totally controlling this young team. Blake has always been tougher than he looks and is not afraid of making big plays. He's been average at best though against Houston, which uses its quick guards to throw Blake off rhythm. As the only starter with lots of playoff minutes, Blake's leadership will step to the forefront.
Artest: He'll end up playing both wing positions in this series, and could even defend a 4 if necessary against Portland. But he'll see lots of time on Brandon Roy, and that matchup is the key to the series. He had a bit of a down season, shooting great from 3 (39.9 percent) but only 40 percent overall.
If Artest plays under control, he'll be a huge X factor for Houston. He'll be motivated just getting back to the playoffs, and his ability to not only lock down guys on defense but to also create chaos and turnovers is still strong. He also represents one of a few very physically strong Rockets players, an advantage Houston will look to exploit if the series becomes a physical one.
Roy: One of the elite guards in the NBA, this is his first playoff action. He's a true inside-outside threat, and does everything for his team to win. He won the last player of the week award for the West, so he comes in playing great.
Houston has had some success defending him, holding him to below 40 percent shooting. Part of that formula is wearing him down on defense -- he gets to rest against Battier most of the time but will have to pay attention to Wafer. Roy is the rare player who can carry his team to a series victory, but can he do it in his first playoff action?
Battier: No team features two lockdown wings like Battier and Artest, which is why the Rockets are such a superior defensive team. And when Artest is on Roy and Batum is in the game, Battier's talent at being a help defender will really show.
He'll also share time on Roy and have to defend Travis Outlaw, so his on-ball defense will have to be sharp. He is still a good shooter (38.4 percent from 3), but does not shoot often. In fact, he is not too involved in the offense at all, mostly serving as a ball conveyor and saving his energy for his huge defensive role.
Batum: Like Battier, Batum plays his role very well -- defend the ball, be a great helpside guy and make simple plays on offense. But he's going to have to defend Ron Artest if Roy needs rest and guards Battier, and that will be challenging. Fighting Artest inside without fouling is the goal. He is a solid 3-point shooter (36.9 percent) and hurt Houston this season (8.7 ppg and 66.7 percent from 3).
Scola: He improved in almost every category this season and will be counted on heavily on both ends to help Houston win a road game or two. He's crafty and strong, and is an outstanding finisher inside -- and he hit 69 percent of his shots against Portland this season, averaging over 16 ppg.
Even though his backups are excellent defensive players, Houston is still better defensively when he's on the floor. Defending Aldridge and even Portland's centers will challenge him a great deal -- his size is an issue -- but he's strong enough to push them around some.
Aldridge: Continues to move toward All-Star status, combining a decent perimeter game with an excellent scoring touch inside. He's an excellent post-up option for Portland, using long arms and good feel to get easy shots, and combines with Roy to form one of the most potent and youngest tandems in basketball.
His ability to hit the outside shot really opens things up for Portland's slashers and for Oden when he's in. He's also a decent defender, but is not a strong rebounder. Matched up with a veteran like Scola, Aldridge has to play to his ability to give Portland the edge it needs at this spot.
Yao: One of the few franchise centers in basketball, Yao is a huge difference-maker on both sides of the ball for Houston. He can shoot from the perimeter, finish with authority and accuracy inside, find teammates for shots even when they are not that open, and anchor the defense by using his size and smarts.
He has not done so well against Portland, scoring just 16 ppg on 42 percent shooting, but if he can occupy its bigs then he'll free up his teammates. Yao's willingness to be a role player is part of his gift. Portland is the best team in the league on the offensive glass, so Yao's efforts on the boards are a key to the series.
Przybilla: A very underrated player who is a dominant rebounder and a solid shot-blocker. But he's best playing great position defense inside, cutting off easy angles to the rim. He's the unsung key to Portland's defense. Since Yao is such a great free throw shooter, Przybilla must try to contain his scoring without sending him to the line, so denying him important spots seems to be the plan.
Kyle Lowry: Tough-minded and defensively oriented guard with no playoff experience. He must run his team without turning the ball over, and control pace off the bench.
Von Wafer: A hugely surprising performer for Houston who is now capable of scoring in bunches and providing great energy off the bench. Excellent 3-point shooter (39 percent).
Carl Landry: Coming back from a bullet wound, he hit 67 percent of his shots in April and blocked a shot a game in just 21 minutes.
Chuck Hayes: Strictly a defensive stopper, he will likely spend good minutes each game harassing Aldridge.
Travis Outlaw: Gets the bulk of the minutes at small forward, and is a dynamic player for Portland. He has played very well against Houston and has the skills and athleticism to give both Battier and Artest problems.
Greg Oden: Extremely productive and efficient player when he gets time, and the likelihood of the officials allowing more physical play helps Oden more so than any player in the playoffs. Oden's strength and agility can make things very tough on Yao.
Rudy Fernandez: One of the league's best rookies who has lots of international playoff experience. A topflight 3-point shooter who can also make plays on defense.
Each team is capable of winning on the other's court, and Houston almost swept this series in the regular season. Portland's home-court advantage matters only if it goes seven games, other than giving the Blazers a chance to get a big lead in the series.
But other than Houston's point guards, the Rockets are a very experienced team and they played incredible defense in the postseason last year. If Portland knuckles up and wins the first two, its chances of winning the series soar, but Houston should be the better-prepared team overall, and winning Game 1 or 2 seems likely. The fact that the Rockets should be able to quiet Portland's normally huge edge on the offensive glass is the difference-maker, to me.
Prediction: Houston in 6
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.
Scouts Inc. breaks down the Western Conference first-round series between the Houston Rockets and Portland Trail Blazers and picks the winner.