The Trail Blazers are back in the NBA playoffs for the first time in two years. And, with Game 1 in Houston on Sunday, Portland guard Wesley Matthews is getting even less sleep than usual.
I already didnt sleep, Matthews said Friday afternoon, after a practice in Tualatin and shortly before the team boarded its plane for Houston. But now, this no sleep is excitement. I cant wait to get down there.
"Im just tired of waiting. This is what you play for. The regular season is great and its meaningful. Its a blessing to be able to be in this league and play in the NBA. But the playoffs, this is what you grew up watching on TV. This is what you live for.
The gorilla in the room is that Portland has not won a playoff series since the 2000-2001 season.
While the Blazers clearly want to see that streak end, point guard Damian Lillard says Portland cannot allow itself to get too caught up in anything except winning one game at a time.
We want to win Game 1 and take it one game at a time, Lillard says. We dont want to get caught up in being the first (Blazers) team to win a series in a long time, or even just winning the series. We just want to win Game 1.
The Blazers and the Rockets had the same record (54-28), but because Houston beat Portland three out of four games, the Rockets will go into the series as the No. 4 seed and Portland the No. 5. That means Portland must win at least one game in Houston to advance.
The sooner we do that, the better, coach Terry Stotts says.
The Blazers say Houston's Toyota Center will present a challenging environment.
They have history, Matthews says of the Rockets. Houston has a lot of history. They have championships. Whenever you have a talented team, its going to bring out fans. Were going to have to battle through that.
"Ive never been in Houston in a playoff series, so Im not really sure what thats going to be like. But I have been in playoff experiences and theyre rowdy. Were going to have to bring our own energy and our own fight.
Lillard says the Blazers need to limit the Rockets explosive plays that energize their crowd.
Theyve got a great crowd, especially when a team gets to making exciting plays, hitting 3s, getting dunks, he says. Thats what we want to stay away from. We want to try to limit their 3-pointers and keep them away from the rim because those are the two things that they like to do the most.
Stotts says transition plays will be the critical statistic throughout the best-of-seven NBA series.
Transition is going to be huge, Stotts says. They run consistently. Every time they get a rebound, theyre looking to run and theyre looking to push it. Its a mind-set with them. They have multiple ball handlers who can get the ball and go. They have a lot of playmakers who can get the ball out and push it."
For the Blazers to combat that, Stotts says Portland has to be in the right frame of mind, too.
Its a mind-set, Stotts says. Transition is those first three steps. If they get the first three steps on us, then were in trouble. We have to have the alertness and the awareness to get back when you need to get back or before you need to get back, rather than waiting to see what happens.
As far as stopping the Rockets in transition, the Blazers do not have the advantage of fresh legs.
Four of their regular starters Nicolas Batum, Robin Lopez, Lillard and Matthews played all 82 games this regular season. LaMarcus Aldridge, after some minor injuries, had 69 appearances.
But Matthews says that in the playoffs fatigue is not a factor.
Its a whole new season, he says. Its a whole 'nother mentality, its a whole 'nother mind-set and its a whole 'nother type of adrenaline that I cant even put into words.
Another challenge for the Blazers will be containing Houston guard James Harden and center Dwight Howard.
Harden torched the Blazers this season, averaging 30.3 points per game, with 41 in a 118-113 overtime win by the Rockets in Houston on March 9.
Hes crafty, Matthews says. He knows how to initiate contact and take contact and get to the free-throw line. Hes got everything in his game. Hes great at pick-and-roll situations. They put him in a lot of situations where hes strong. The thing is trying to make everything tough (for him).
The duty of guarding Howard will fall primarily to Lopez. While Lopez acknowledges that Howard, who averaged 17.5 points against Portland this season, is talented, Lopez says the Rockets center does have some deficiencies the Blazers can take advantage of.
Hes a good player, but he has his limitations, Lopez says. Were going to try to take advantage of it. I enjoy (playing against Howard). Its a chance for me to be physical. I cant always do that against the smaller centers in the league.
Portland will also try to outmatch Houstons bench.
Stotts says the Rockets have a deep bench with players such as Jeremy Lin, Francisco Garcia, Omri Casspi and Omer Asik.
They have a lot of players coming off the bench that fit their style as far as spacing the court and driving the ball, Stott says. Lin, Garcia and Casspi can really space the floor, and a guy like Asik coming off the bench can really give them a defensive presence.
Stotts is not tipping his hand about which team he thinks has the bench advantage.
I dont know, he says. It depends how much either team plays the second unit. Ultimately, I dont think either team is going to have five reserves in at one point.
"The players who do play need to play well.