EGGERS: Picking a run-and-gun Blazers-Rockets series
HOUSTON -- Everything seemed pretty loosey-goosey as the Trail Blazers wrapped up their practice session Saturday night at the Toyota Center.
By that, I mean relaxed and carefree. Preparation for Sunday's opener of their best-of-seven first-round playoff series with Houston was complete, and there was a sort of light-hearted, devil-may-care attitude from the Portland players.
"I'm excited," loquacious 7-footer Robin Lopez told me as he sat on a bench in jeans and T-shirt, which he donned even before the workout was over. "We're all excited. I think we're ready.
"It's going to be a great series. It's going to be interesting for the fans to watch this one. There are a lot of intriguing matchups. It's two high-powered, offensive teams going at it. And when they want to, both teams are pretty formidable on the defense end, as well."
I'm expecting a competitive series. For a while, I was leaning toward picking the underdog Blazers to win. I've decided against it, and I'll spend much of the rest of this column explaining why.
It should be a run-and-gun series. In their four-game regular-season series, during which Houston won three of four, the Rockets averaged 116 points, the Blazers 109.5. The shooting percentages, though, were very much in Houston's favor -- in field goals (.477 to .428), 3-point shots (.346 to .324) and free throws (.787 to .763).
That latter number is startling given that Portland led the NBA in free-throw percentage (.815) while Houston was 28th (.712). Part of the explanation came with Dwight Howard's success (26 for 40, .650) compared to .547 accuracy through the regular season.
So if you're thinking Hack-a-Howard in the latter stages of a close game, don't hold your breath.
"He shot them well against us," Portland coach Terry Stotts said. "When I was in Milwaukee, we fouled him and he shot them well. When I was in Dallas, we fouled him and he shot them well. I'm not ruling it out, but it's not a no-brainer, either."
In their regular-season series, Houston owned the boards 47-30 in the first game, but the Blazers hammered them good the last three games. It will be important to continue that trend. The Blazers, incidentally, lead the league in second-chance points, while the Rockets are 28th in opponents' second-chance points.
Rebounding "is huge for us, especially at the offensive end," said Lopez, who set a franchise single-season record while averaging nearly four a game off the offensive glass. "Both teams are very potent on that side of the court. Extra possessions means easy opportunities."
Aldridge was a beast against Houston, averaging 26.8 points and 15.5 rebounds, and he'll need to dominate second-year pro Terrence Jones for the Blazers to succeed.
When a Houston reporter began a question by pointing out he hadn't played a bad game all season against the Rockets, Aldridge interjected with a smile, "Don't jinx me."
It's Aldridge's fourth playoff series. It's Jones' first taste of the postseason.
"I've been here, I've done it, I understand what it takes to win," Aldridge said. "It's going to be more physical. Every possession counts. I understand the magnitude of every game. It's a little easier on me. Playing in the postseason those three years will make me better in this series."
But Aldridge knows Houston coach Kevin McHale won't leave Jones out on an island. The Rockets will mix up the coverage, sometimes sending a double-team, sometimes using center Dwight Howard to guard the Blazers' captain.
"I should have that edge" over Jones, Aldridge said. "I'm older, but they're going to have schemes to double me from the baseline, to front me. They won't let me play one-on-one."
The Blazers will need something more from Damian Lillard than they got during the regular season in the Houston series, in which he averaged 18.8 points while shooting .386 from the field. His battle with Patrick Beverley and Jeremy Lin will go a long way toward deciding the series.
Then there is Portland's defense against the likes of Harden, whose numbers against the Blazers are MVP-like (30.3 points, 7.3 rebounds, 5.3 assists while shooting .481 from the field, .455 from 3-point range and .857 from the line); Howard (25.5 points, 13.5 rebounds, .633 shooting) and small forward Chandler Parsons (17.5 points, 7.0 rebounds).
I asked Lopez how Howard stacks up against the most difficult centers to defend in the league.
"He's very strong and seriously athletic," Lopez said. "That makes him a bit of a pill. You have guys like DeMarcus (Cousins), Marc Gasol, Brook (Lopez), who are pretty skilled down there. With Dwight, it's a different kind of matchup. It exercises a different muscle."
If I'm Stotts, that matchup worries me. So, too, does the duel at small forward between Parsons and Nicolas Batum, who had a sub-par series against the Rockets (10.5 points, .407 field-goal percentage, .235 3-point percentage).
Parson "is the type of guy who just play basketball," Batum said. "That's why he's so good. He doesn't force anything. He doesn't do anything crazy. They don't run a lot of plays for him. We're a little bit kind of the same guy. We're like the third option."
But as Batum points out, "with these two lineups, every matchup is a key."
Houston finished the season sixth in the NBA in opponents' field-goal percentage at .442. Portland started the season in the bottom five in that department but moved up to 11th at season's end at .451.
"I've been proud of the improvement we've made defensively," Stotts said. "We've had some lapses at times. We got off to a poor start, but we've made adjustments, and our defense the last half of the season has been pretty solid."
The Rockets' defense, though, has Beverley, who will go the full 94 feet defending Lillard. And Howard, who finished only seventh in the league in blocked shots but will have everything funneled to him at the defensive end in the series.
"They have Dwight at the rim and schemes that force everything to him," Aldridge said. "But we have our schemes, too. It's going to come down to defense."
Funny to say when it's a battle between the No. 2 (Houston, 107.8) and No. 3 (Portland, 106.7) scoring teams in the league. The teams are also No. 2 and 3, respectively, in 3-pointers made per game. The Rockets lead the league in points in the paint -- in part because of Harden's frequent forays to the basket, in part because of a ton of fast-break points.
"Style of play is going to be fun to watch in this series," Stotts said. "Both teams put points on the board. Houston is such a dynamic offensive team. They shoot 3's, they get points at the rim, they get out in transition. They penetrate and get to the free throw line. our defense is going to have to be on point to contain them.
"It's which ever team either scores better or defends better, which ever way you want to look at it."
If I'm Stotts, I worry about containing Harden, "the best two guard in the league," Batum said. Wesley Matthews will work his tail off, but Harden always seems to get his numbers in the end.
There are two other factors. One, the Rockets were together in the playoffs last season and, with Howard and Harden leading the way, have plenty of playoff experience. The Blazers have none together and very little in total outside of sixth-man Mo Williams.
"Most of our rotation guys have been in the playoffs," Stotts argued. "Even with eight players in the first two years in the league, I wouldn't say we're an inexperienced playoff team."
The other factor is homecourt advantage. If it comes to a seventh game -- and it might -- the Moda Center would have been a tremendous asset for the Blazers. Instead, the rubber match would be played at the Toyota Center.
If Howard or Beverley -- who were hobbled with injuries late, but seemed to be fine over the final three games of the regular season -- go down, everything changes.
Otherwise, I'm saying the Rockets win in seven, and waiting for Aldridge, Lillard and company to prove me wrong.