Not that long ago geeked out Rockets were fans desperate for a solution to a power forward position. The position had lacked a true identity for the better part of a decade. The solution? A trade for native Texan and Longhorn alumni LaMarcus Aldridge.
The sweet shooting, board cleaning big man is the best of both worlds. Aldridge is a primary offensive option and a defensive rock on team and man situations. An unhappy all-star on a team going nowhere. My inner gut told me Daryl Morey had already picked out what filter to use on the press conference Instagram photo.
How times have changed.
The emergence of Nicolas Batum & Damian Lillard remade the Trail Blazers from lottery team to being a piece short of contenders (Sound familiar?). Aldridge's future is still unknown, but it seems unlikely Portland will cut and run on their three time all-star now.
On the year the Rockets and Trail Blazers have swapped storylines in the 2013 - 2014 NBA season. Portland started the year going a league best 17 - 3 in their first 20 games. Surprising everyone and turning an "Aldridge unhappy" narrative into an immediate feel good story.
The start of the year shine has faded under the pressures of the Western Conference and a few rough patches including 7 losses in 10 games instigated by a game against the Rockets in January .
Conversely the Rockets got out to a slow start dogged by on-court chemistry, locker room questions and close losses to inferior teams.
Houston now has the best record in the NBA since the all-star break. We're now being considered serious title contenders with room to grow (integrating Jordan Hamilton and re-integrating Omer Asik are both promising projects).
The Portland Trail Blazers and Houston Rockets are now a game apart battling for playoff position. Each team has a solid chance to guarantee home court for the first round of the playoffs, but have an uphill battle to snatch the 1 or 2 seeds in the Western Conference.
Each team relies on a solid big man-guard 1-2 combo paired with an efficient dangerous swingman (Parsons & Batum).
The Blazers have a few breaks during their current Southwest swing. They played their hearts out against Dallas two nights ago. They trailed by 30 in the second quarter and miraculously fought back to take the lead in the third quarter. A mechanical effort from Dirk Nowitzki and a late clutch shot from the ghost of one-time all-star Devin Harris buried the Blazers for good.
Expect Portland to be well rested for this match up.
Expect Toyota Center to be glowing. The Rockets have beaten Miami and Indiana establishing a new-found sense of home court. If this Rockets team didn't feel like every inch of this court belongs to them, they do now.
The Rockets are 2 - 1 against the Trail Blazers. Early in the year Houston delivered a win in Portland behind 33 from Harden and 29 from Howard after getting blown out by the Clippers in an embarrassing 19 point loss.
In the second win the Rockets beat a Blazers team that was riding a five game win streak and above the Rockets in the standings at 31 - 10 in mid January. Chandler Parsons and Dwight Howard drove the offense in a game that washed away a loss to Oklahoma City where Houston scored 70 points in the first half and just 19 in the second half.
Things to Watch:
Chandler Parsons vs. Nic Batum --
These guys each produce in so many ways. It's always interesting to see two players who approach the game similarly on each side of the floor go at each other. Do they adjust their game? Do they play their game? Does each coach try and match them up against someone else?
Defending Dwight --
Portland leaves Robin Lopez on Dwight as much as possible, but he made it hell for Lopez in previous matchups. If memory serves, one game Victor Claver was called off the bench to try and stem the tide after Portland's big men were lost to early foul trouble. Portland hasn't viewed Aldridge as an option in previous matchups. You may want to write down the name Myers Leonard now.
James Harden's Defense --
I'm continually intrigued by McHale's experiment to put James Harden on primary offensive threats. The assumption is there's four defenders behind him to help. This creates less problematic situations when Harden gets blown by on the wing or loses his man entirely on a backdoor cut. Beverley clearly will guard Lillard. Do you move Harden to Batum? Leave him on Matthews in the corner?
TIP OFF 6 p.m. (Eastern)
Match Ups (these are easy):
PG: Patrick Beverley vs. Damian Lillard
SG: James Harden vs. Wes Matthews
SF: Chandler Parsons vs. Nic Batum
Advantage: Push (I'm a big Batum fan, when we win I'll say "I knew Parsons would play better")
PF: Terrence Jones vs. LaMarcus Aldridge
Advantage: LaMarcus Aldridge
C: Dwight Howard vs. Robin Lopez
Advantage: Dwight Howard