The Rockets and Blazers series will tip off on Sunday night, and in preparation for it, Dave Deckard joined TDS to talk about the matchup. Hope you enjoy!
Patrick: What are the Blazers' keys to winning the series?
Dave: The biggest key is, of course, dealing with the twin superstars. Portland's defense has been maligned during the season, often fairly. In truth they're long, have some nice individual defenders, and do a more than credible job as long as they can focus on just...one...thing. That thing can vary. They can clog the lane and shut down penetration when they want to. They can defend the arc. They can take a single superstar and make his life hard. Give them one target and they're like attack dogs on the prowl. But if you move them around, force them to make decisions, divide their attention and make them rotate, the defense tapers off.
The Blazers have to find some way to slow down either Howard or Harden without committing the entire arsenal. Obviously they won't stop either one cold. They might be able to live with Dwight playing slow-down offense in the lane if they can make him work for his points against a single defender and keep him from going crazy on the boards. They might be able to live with Harden shooting often if the shots are contested, come at a low-ish percentage, and again can be covered by a single person. If that's the case, they can absorb the damage from one superstar and concentrate on frustrating the other. But if both guys are playing free and easy with the Blazers running like headless chickens between them, Portland's in trouble.
Naturally the Blazers will be concerned with secondary shooters at the arc but I suspect they'll have to make do as they can there.
Hidden keys to the series revolve around Houston's occasional lack of attention to detail. Forcing turnovers and running for easy points would be a boon for the Blazers. Offensive rebounding is a huge part of Portland's attack. Moving the ball for weak-side threes is a favored tactic. If the Rockets don't take care of the ball, block out consistently, and rotate crisply on defense the Blazers could gain an edge. Portland doesn't have trouble scoring most nights. If Houston gives them a few extra points, there could be trouble in Rocket-land.
Patrick: Nicolas Batum continues to be a valuable player, but it seems like he may have tapered off his growth this season. Is that the case? Is he "what he is" at this point, or does he have another bit to grow?
Dave: I'm not sure how he can be what he is when what he is changes from week to week. He's shown the ability to do everything: shoot, score, pass, rebound, defend. The trouble is, he will usually do 2 of those things in a given night. When he explodes the Blazers do well. The Rockets have muted him this season. Even getting back to his averages would help the Blazers. If he manages to find a hidden reserve of production, he could be a series-changer. But that doesn't happen often, nor for long. For now he remains a tantalizing talent tasked with defending the opponent's best wing every night. After that you just have to take what you can get.
Patrick: What's the Blazers' biggest weakness?
Dave: In this series, I'd say it's a lack of a good Plan B. The Blazers do well in their comfort zone...one of the best teams in the league really. If they can keep Robin Lopez in the lane on both ends of the floor, if LaMarcus Aldridge's shot is falling, if their ball movement is crisp, if those weak-side threes drop, if Damian Lillard plays with swagger, and if they feel the door is open for them to win the game they get really dangerous. But when one thing falls, everything else follows like dominoes. Their offensive default plan is to feed Aldridge or let Lillard go one-on-one. It works for a while but usually stalls. Their defensive back-up plan is simple: take the ball out of the net after you score. Their bench revolves around Mo Williams, a hit-or-miss proposition. They need more depth and more players with iso ability on offense. Since the Rockets have nothing to do all week but game plan for Portland, it's a sure bet that Plan A will find plenty of resistance. After that, Blazer fans are crossing their fingers.
Patrick: Thomas Robinson was acquired for a pair of picks this summer, and has stepped into the rotation as a bench big. How has he looked this season? Do you see him playing a role in the playoffs?
Dave: He's been mostly not great-lost on the floor, really--with 4-5 spectacular outings peppered in. He has been in more of a groove the last three weeks, but who knows if that's progress along the learning curve or the sun shining oddly. I can see him playing a role in this series, though, because small-ball may need to be in Portland's bag of tricks. The guy can rebound...the fatal flaw in most small-ball plans and one of the characteristics the Blazers cannot prosper without. I doubt he'll get huge minutes, but he could be a wrinkle player.
Patrick: How do you see this series ending?
Dave: I want to say Houston in 6 but that would mean a clinching victory on Portland's floor. But I don't like Houston in 5 because I think the Blazers can win 2 and I don't like Houston in 7 because I wonder if the Blazers can deal with the mismatches that long. So let's go with 6 because it's the most satisfying number, just with an asterisk.
The longer this series goes, though, the better it is for Portland. The Rockets better be serious about it. If you give the Blazers a crack of daylight they will burst through the door like they own the place. They don't see odds and they don't see deficits. Four quick three-pointers and a couple of Lillard layups at the top of the fourth will close most deficits and will steal many games. If you have the chance to put them down, you'd be well advised to do it and make it stick.
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