The Rockets and Blazers head back to the Toyota Center on Wednesday night for game two, three days after the Blazers took down the Rockets in overtime of game one. To get ready for game two, Dave Deckard of Blazer's Edge and I had an email exchange, discussing what had happened in game one and what each team can do in game to. I hope you enjoy it!
Dave: Ok, as a fairly-experienced, fairly-savvy, mostly-astute basketball guy my most reasoned reaction to last night's game was, "What the hell just happened?!?!?" Care to shed any light on that from a Rockets perspective, because I'm not sure I have a complete answer myself.
Patrick: Honestly, when that final horn sounded, I wasn't sure what to think. On one hand, it was a killer loss for the Rockets, who really could have used that game one win, but on the other hand, I felt so lucky just to have seen such an incredible game. From the Rockets perspective, they simply did not execute down the stretch in either overtime or regulation. With a ten point lead and less than four minutes on the clock, this game looked pretty comfortably in hand for the Rockets. But then, the Rockets had a few turnovers, and Damian Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge went nuts. By my count, they scored the last 25 points of regulation for the Blazers, and the Rockets had no answer.
At the end of the day, the Rockets were on their front foot all game, but the Blazers always had an answer for whatever the Rockets threw at them. With Beverley and Howard out at the end of the game, the Rockets simply couldn't do the same. With the Rockets likely making adjustments to try and slow Aldridge in game two, how do you see the Blazers responding? Could that reliance on their two core players bite the Blazers in the butt?
Dave: I'm not sure the Blazers have a butt left to bite. It seems like they threw everything at the Rockets. Wesley Matthews posting. Lillard driving and shooting threes. Batum trying to guard everybody not named Dwight Howard. Three different guys on Howard and none of them able to stop him. Referees making weird calls all night on both sides. Hack-a-Dwight. Foul-outs. Overtime.
In a comment under my game recap I compared the Blazers to a Dungeons and Dragons party who just fought and defeated a huge giant by the narrowest of margins but expended their entire bag of magic items in order to do so. They're happy until they look down the hall and see 3-6 of his older brothers coming towards them.
"Anybody got a potion of Hack-a-Dwight left?"
"Crap. We just used the last one."
I don't believe that relying on Lillard and Aldridge will bite the Blazers per se, any more than relying on Harden and Howard will bite the Rockets. I mean, who do you want to rely on when the season is on the line? Those are the right two. But what strikes me is that this game was odd as heck with Houston not playing all that well and it still took one of the best playoff performances in history plus overtime to get the job done. The Blazers went above and beyond. It saw them through and frankly will still see them through if they can keep the game close. Remember in our pre-series Q&A I warned that the Rockets better not screw around with the Blazers because if you give them daylight, they will take it. But that game was anything but average. It still feels like Houston's average played better than Portland's average last night. We just didn't see much of either.
Speaking of--and I don't usually put things this harshly but I don't see any other way-you had to know that Houston's decision-making last night was brick-headed stupid, right? I mean, there's all this talk about the refs, who indeed had a wacked-out evening. But even though they blew calls on every side from every angle they pretty much showed in the second half that anybody driving the lane was going to get rewarded. The Rockets HAD the paint right in their hands. Every drive was a layup, a dunk, or a foul. Houston barely even had to dish. It was just straight scoring, there for the taking. But with the game closing the Rockets went with the jumper. No easy hoops. No extra whistles. It was all right there and they refused to take it. Why would they ever take a contested jumper? Why would they slow down Howard into a 1-on-3 posting situation with no passing when he was scoring free and easy against single coverage and a simple re-post would have cleared the field?
(For those tempted to take up the partisan cause here, keep in mind I'm insulting Portland's defense as much as Houston's decision-making. Believe me, I wish this weren't so. Also feel free to critique what Portland did. I'll answer!)
Frankly it looked to me like James Harden's reasoning for shot selected boiled down to, "Because I'm James Harden!" Did you see any of this and do you think the Rockets will come out with a more coordinated, slightly-less presumptuous (or, alternately, brain-dead) attack in Game 2?
Patrick: The Rockets offense down the stretch was without a doubt pants-on-head stupid. In overtime and in the last few minutes of the game, when the Rockets ran a high pick-and-roll with Lin as the ball handler, Lin was able to get into the paint with ease. He missed a couple of easy shots, but for the most part, all it took was a simple pick-and-roll for the Rockets to get wide open in the paint.
If you read my recap from Sunday night's game, you'll notice that there isn't one mention of the officiating in game one. That isn't because they didn't play a big role in the game-it was clear that they inserted themselves far too much into the game-but it was not the story on the night. Handwringing over a missed foul called on Dwight Howard and a weak call against Patrick Beverley means little if LaMarcus Aldridge and Robin Lopez also were sent to the bench on questionable calls. More importantly, the refs did not cause the Rockets to blow an eleven point lead inside of four minutes, leave Damian Lilllard wide open for a three pointer while up by three, or miss a crucial box out on the last play of the game.
The bottom line is that the story from Sunday night's game is that the Rockets simply could not execute when the chips were down. Time after time, James Harden has come up big and hit difficult shots to win games, but he was not on his game on Sunday night and took shots that he wouldn't dream of hitting in the last few minutes. After Freeland missed a free throw to give the Rockets a chance at a tie or win, everybody in the arena knew what "play" the Rockets would run, and just as many knew who was going to take the shot. It's no surprise that when Harden drove to the paint, he was met by four Blazers, and he was blanketed before he could get any kind of good shot up.
Your point that the Blazers brought their absolute "A" game while the Rockets had their "C" game has some merit, and it gives the Rockets some hope that they can get back into this series. Still, in a series such as this one, all the Blazers need to do is pull one upset on the road, and take care of business in the Rose Garden (I can't get used to calling it the Moda Center). The Rockets will come out with more firepower in future games, and I suspect they will still take this series, but last night's game showed a number of weaknesses in the Rockets attack. If they don't come out to play on Wednesday, the Blazers might take that "daylight" as you call it, and put the Rockets in a big hole.
Changing gears a little bit, I think that one of the most interesting matchups of this series is the big men battle. Dwight Howard said on Monday that he expects to defend Aldridge more in game two, and it seems like a move out of pure necessity more than anything as the Rockets can't afford another 46 and 18 night out of Aldridge. Do you think this is a good move? What is the best way to take Aldridge out of his element? And does Robin Lopez have a good enough post acumen to punish the Rockets for sticking Terrence Jones on him?
Dave: That's a brilliant and complex question. Way to make my brain hurt. The answer depends on how you define "success".
If the Rockets put Howard on Aldridge, LaMarcus will immediately head outside and shoot over him. (Assuming he can't get a step past off the dribble.) Aldridge will probably miss more of those shots than he did on Sunday, but if Jones is matched up against Lopez neither Aldridge nor the Blazers will care. Robin Lopez flourishes when he's the biggest guy on the floor. Give him 4 inches and 50 pounds and he will take you to school. I suspect he went through high school playing against 6th-graders or something. He knows how to use his body. As a result, when Aldridge's shots miss, Lopez will scoop them up and cram them in right over Jones' head.
You might also see the Blazers keep Aldridge as a decoy, instead running pick and roll between Nicolas Batum and Lopez. Jones will not be stopping Robin under a full head of steam and charging to the hoop.
The upside for the Rockets: at least Aldridge ain't scoring at the rim. But I'm not sure the downside would be worth it. The Blazers have been comfortable in this kind of situation all season long.
However, as counter-intuitive as it sounds, I'm not sure I'd worry overly much about taking Aldridge out right now. He scored 46 points in Game 1. I know it's not this simple, but if he scores 44 points the Blazers lose. How many times is he going to do that? How many times has it been done in league history? And is Lillard really going to get 31 again? If Aldridge and Lillard repeat their performances you have to suspect that Portland, not Houston, has the best two stars in the series. But I don't think that's going to happen.
If I'm Houston, I look at Game 1 and think, "When things weren't going once-in-a-lifetime, batcrap crazy with Aldridge turning into Michael Jordan and the refs losing their ever-loving minds, we built leads in this game. If we just play normal, with a little more intensity and smarts but continuing to control the glass and the pace, we can make up that 2 points." I'm not saying they pretend everything is OK or that history can't repeat. But I'm guessing their solution is to do what they do slightly better and depend that Portland will end up with slightly worse contributions from its stars in Game 2.
The downside, of course, is that if you're wrong, you end up 0-2 headed up to Portland. But honestly, if he wants to take on more responsibility I'd suggest Howard worry about passing out of triple teams instead of guarding Aldridge.
I'm curious about the opposite end...the little guys. How would you rate the performances of Beverley and Lin in Game 1 and what do you expect from the point guard battle in Game 2?
Patrick: Beverley had a huge impact from the standpoint of getting the troops fired up after a really lackluster and unenergetic start to game one. In terms of his play, however, he was pretty mediocre. He looked a step slower after hurting his knee a few weeks ago, and struggled to generate any offense. Defensively, he had his moments, but for the most part he could have done more to slow down Damian Lillard, who ended up with 31 in his playoff debut.
Beverley is an X-factor going forward, because his ability to punish defenses who try to help off him onto James Harden is crucial to the Rockets' offensive attack. In game one, he did not do much to get open off the ball, and when he got shots, he didn't do a good enough job of taking them or knocking them down.
Lin, on the other hand, had a pretty good game to my eyes. Down the stretch, as the Rockets' offense bogged down, Lin was the only Rocket to consistently get good shots and get into the paint. More importantly, the Blazers didn't show an ability to beat the Lin high pick-and-roll. That play is something I'd like to see a lot more of as the series goes along.
Before we wrap this up, what are your keys for game two for the Blazers?
1. Don't suck. Don't pull a Golden State.
2. Rebound. They let the Rockets pull down way too many offensive rebounds in Game 1.
3. Stretch the offense a little by involving players besides Lillard and Aldridge. You know Houston's going to come ready for those two. Stay a step ahead. Hit them where they ain't.
4. Winning this game would be great, but you've got to learn from it no matter what. Houston is now under pressure. They can't afford to lose. Their cards will be on the table, their best shot on display. It's rare to have that in Game 2, especially as the underdog road team. Even if they get you, you've now seen what is, in essence, their Game 6-7 strategy. You have 5 straight games to counter it. Use that.
Presumably the onus to adjust lies on Houston. Their keys?
1. This may go without saying, but Harden has to get his stuff together. Another performance like game one for him and the Rockets might go to Portland down 2-0.
2. Beverley has to stay with Lillard. He played him ok in game one and Lillard's talent obviously played a big part in his 31 point night, but Beverley has to be better in game two. If that knee is not full strength, Lillard could have another huge night.
3. The game down low could ultimately decide the series. The Rockets have indicated that they will guard Aldridge more with Howard in game two, and that means that Terrence Jones will be stuck on Robin Lopez unless the Rockets go with the twin towers look. Howard should be ok on Aldridge, at least slowing him down more than the Rockets could manage in game one, but Jones will have to keep Lopez off the boards and push him out so he can't get deep post position and kill the Rockets down low.
We can only hope that game two is half as entertaining as game one.