Thursday, April 17, 2014

West Round 1 Preview: (4) Houston Rockets vs. (5) Portland Trail Blazers

Damian Lillard can shoot the lights out, but he'll need to step up on defense for Portland to advance.
By Jeremy Conlin (@jeremy_conlin)

By The Numbers:

54-28 (33-8 Home; 21-20 Road)
PPG: 107.7 (2nd); PPG Allowed: 103.1 (23rd)
+4.6 Average Scoring Margin (6th)
Off Rating: 108.6 (4th); Def Rating: 103.1 (12th)
+5.5 Net Efficiency Margin (5th)

54-28 (31-10 Home; 23-18 Road)
PPG: 106.7 (4th); PPG Allowed: 102.8 (22nd)
+4.0 Average Scoring Margin (8th)
Off Rating: 108.2 (6th); Def Rating: 104.7 (16th)
+3.5 Net Efficiency Margin (T-8th)

Season Series: Houston 3-1
Houston 116, Portland 101 (November 5)
Portland 111, Houston 104 (December 12)
Houston 126, Portland 113 (January 20)
Houston 118, Portland 113 - OT (March 9)

Players to Watch:

Dwight Howard

In 2011, Howard was unquestionably the best center in the league, maybe even the best player in the league, period. But despite herculean efforts (he averaged a 27/16 on 63% shooting), Orlando fell in Round 1 to Atlanta. In 2012, he battled injury issues and rumors of lapsing effort over a squabble with head coach Stan Van Gundy. In 2013, he gamely played through persistent back issues, but the Lakers disappointed and he skipped town over the summer. All things considered, Howard's career has been in free-fall since the spring of 2011. But this year was a return to form. He's not all the way back to his peak, and now at the age of 28, very well may never return, but he was certainly better on both ends in 2014 than he was in Los Angeles last season.

Howard is really the only player who makes Houston appreciably better on both ends of the floor. Omer Asik is a fine defensive player, but his offensive repertoire is limited and he spent most of the season sulking after losing his starting job to Howard. When they play small, with neither Howard nor Asik on the floor (it's rare, but they'll usually go with both Donatas Motiejunas and Terrence Jones on the floor together), the offense stays afloat but the defense becomes unacceptably porous.

Howard's minutes were scaled back considerably this season - he played his lowest minutes per game since his rookie season, and his total minutes were by far the lowest of his career (in this instance I'm pro-rating his 2012 season to a full 82-game schedule instead of 66). As such, you would expect Howard to be fully rested and in top form for the postseason. When the Rockets start to ramp up his minutes, Houston could transform from an also-ran into a legitimate title contender.

Damian Lillard

The reigning NBA Rookie of The Year came back for his sophomore season and made a nice mini-leap. He upped his foul rate by over 30%, cut his turnovers, and was more accurate from three despite even more attempts. He was at the center of what for a time was an effectively unguardable offense. As time progressed, it turned out it was only unguardable because the team collectively was shooting unsustainably well on long two-point shots, but they still finished the season as a top-six offense.

His problem is on defense. He's bad. He's really bad. He's so bad that sometimes it makes you wonder if he's really playing some elaborate practical joke. He tries to switch when he should fight over the screen. He chases down the ball-handler when he should switch and recover. He closes out to the wrong guy. He's in the wrong place more often than he's in a neutral place, which is more often than he's in the right place.

Luckily, he's only responsible for guarding Patrick Beverley and Jeremy Lin, who are fine players, don't get me wrong, but don't shoulder the majority of the load for Houston's offense. But if Lillard can't play more consistently (or, more likely the case - if Portland can't find a way to hide his weaknesses), both Lin and Beverley are capable of going on one-man 8-0 runs. The Blazers will need to keep those to a minimum to have any hope.

The Case for Houston:

Houston is better on offense than Portland is.

Houston is better on defense than Portland is.

Houston has the two best players in the series.

Houston has home-court advantage.

Houston won three of four games against Portland in the regular season. 

Best-Case Scenario: Dwight Howard closes off the paint, and Harden and Parsons exhibit at least enough effort to run Portland's shooters off the three-point line. On the other end, Portland's defensive lapses surrender numerous open looks for Houston's shooters. Portland's twos can't keep up with Houston's threes and Houston makes quick work despite a short stumble in Game 3, winning the series in five games.

The Case for Portland:

Portland is the only team in the league with three players with at least 400 attempts from three. Unlike most high-volume shooting teams, where a half-dozen players or more take a moderate to high number of threes, Portland's three-point shots are clustered into really just three guys - Damian Lillard, Wes Matthews, and Nic Batum (Mo Williams and Dorell Wright also took a not insignificant number of long-range attempts). With three players combining to shoot almost 18 threes per game, it's really unlikely that all three can be run off the three-point line, especially when they're all on the floor together (which is often). The law of averages says that one of them is likely to be (relatively) open at all times, and they're all above-average shooters.

In previous years, teams have shown that you can win in Round 1 for no other reason than you had a bunch of shooters get hot all at once. Golden State upset Denver last year with that model. Orlando rode it all the way to the Finals in 2009. The Mavericks rained hellfire on the entire league (the Lakers in Round 2 especially) during the 2011 playoffs on their way to an NBA title. So it can happen.

Best-Case Scenario: For whatever reason, Houston's shots aren't falling, but Portland's are. Portland's balance overwhelms Houston's star system and Portland is able to steal one of the first two games in Houston. The Blazers win out at home and take the series in six. 

The Pick

Houston in 5. 

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