HOUSTON -- NBA playoff games are often like chess matches. In Sunday's opening victory over Houston at the Toyota Center, Portland coach Terry Stotts put his counterpart with the Rockets, Kevin McHale, at checkmate at least a couple of times.
Stotts started right off with Wesley Matthews posting up Houston's James Harden three times on the Trail Blazers' first six possessions. Twice it resulted in easy Matthews baskets. Soon, McHale was forced to switch Harden onto Nicolas Batum, but it messed up what the Rockets wanted to do defensively.
Conversely, Houston never came up with a plan to in any way derail LaMarcus Aldridge, whose dominance of the Rockets' Terrence Jones reminded me of a fight I covered between Mike Tyson and the forgettable Clifford Etienne in Memphis in 2003. No contest.
It was inconceivable that with Aldridge having so much success driving to the basket and scoring with his right hand -- didn't the Rockets know that's his second-favorite move next to the patented fadeaway from the left block? -- Jones didn't try to force Aldridge left. And that the Rockets so infrequently gave Jones help. I know, pick your poison -- but I'll try my luck with help defense on a night when Aldridge is channeling his inner Karl Malone.
Then there was Stotts' decision to go to "Hack-a-Howard," intentionally fouling Dwight Howard with Portland trailing by 11 points late in the fourth quarter. Looked like a genius move after Howard made his first two free throws, then missed four straight, necessitating McHale pulling him from the game for two key minutes as the Blazers used an 11-0 surge to draw even.
If Portland gets behind during Wednesday's Game 2 -- and I don't think it has to come at the end of the game -- I see Stotts using the strategy again.
"It's situational," Stotts said. "If I think it's in our best interest to do it, we will. I had no qualms about using it going into the game, and I feel the same way now."
The best thing is, it gets Houston's best big man out of the game. The Rockets without Howard are like Santa's reindeer without Rudolph. Who's going to drive the sleigh?
It would have to be Harden, who burped up 28 shots in 45 minutes -- half of them 3-pointers -- and made only eight (three from distance). Matthews worked hard and did a creditable defensive job on Harden, but the Blazer guard wasn't gloating. He knew it was an off night for his adversary.
Harden "is a talented scorer," Matthews said. "He uses pick-and-rolls extremely well. The pick-and-roll puts (the defender) at a disadvantage already. I was trying to make everything tough for him, but it's team defense. There's no one person stopping somebody like that.
"And it was about making him work at the other end, too. You can't let him have any possessions off."
The Houston Chronicle's veteran beat writer, Jonathan Feigen, asked Matthews if he was happy with the quality of shots Harden wound up taking.
"He shot 28 of them," Matthews said, grinning. "I'm just happy he only made eight of them."
Harden is likely to have a much more proficient offensive game Wednesday. Again, Matthews will try to occupy Harden when he's at the defensive end, making him expend energy on a pursuit he clearly doesn't enjoy.
As for Aldridge, he knows the Rockets will work up something to try to cool his offensive jets.
"I don't want to overthink it, because I don't want to psyche myself out," Aldridge said. "But I see them either fronting with Jones or (Chandler) Parsons and bringing Dwight over, or having Dwight meet me at the rim more.
"Early in the game he blocked a couple shots -- goaltended one that wasn't called -- but as the game went on, I saw him coming. So I thought, 'Double pump-fake him.' (On Wednesday), I see them using him more weak side, or just guarding me more. But we're going to be ready for anything they do."
Half of Houston's 1-2 punch at point guard could be limited Wednesday. Defensive specialist Patrick Beverley reinjured his sore knee late in the opener. He is expected to play in Game 2, but probably with more limited mobility. That would leave more responsibility to Jeremy Lin, who came off the bench for 14 points, six rebounds and four assists in 34 minutes in Game 1. Lin had several strong moves to the hoop for baskets and presents problems defensively for Portland's Damian Lillard, who made his playoff debut a spectacular one with 31 points, nine rebounds and five assists.
"Lin's a good player," Lillard said. "He can score. People get on him about the defensive end, but he's not a bad defender. They score a lot when he's in the lineup. They're just as good a team with Lin playing the point guard position. Beverley is an elite defender who changes the game, but Lin can be effective, also."
Lillard was poised Sunday, turning the ball over only once in 46 minutes. He never looked rattled.
"I was more anxious than anything else to get it started, to play in a playoff game," he said. "Once the game got going, I felt fine. I thought I'd be a little bit more nervous than I was, actually. As soon as the ball went up in the air and I ran up and down a couple of times, I was fine."
Lillard scored 16 of his points in the final five minutes of the fourth quarter and overtime.
"He stepped up big for us late," backcourt mate Matthews said. "I don't know if he was feeling it out early, but he wasn't shooting it well. Something seemed to click when he got kneed in the thigh (in the fourth quarter). Something woke up in him, and he started attacking and being aggressive. That's what we need."
The Blazers could also use more production from their bench, specifically sixth-man Mo Williams, who managed only three points on 1-for-6 shooting with some careless passing, too, in Game 1.
When I asked how he felt he played, Williams repeated, "The way I played? I mean, we won the game. Everybody did what it took. Everybody did enough to win the game."
Sometimes, though, a team wins despite the performance of one or more of its players. Does Williams feel he needs to do more Wednesday?
"Every game is different," he said. "Every game is a new game. You make adjustments, and other guys step up."
Does Williams normally have an inkling what kind of game he'll have during pre-game warmups?
"For guys who come off the bench, it's about how the flow of the game goes," he said. "I always feel good in warmups. No defender out there."
Will the Blazers see a different Rockets team Wednesday night?
"Hell, yeah," he said. "They got to get this win. It's a must-win situation for them. We know that. Don't get it wrong -- they're a really good team. But we're going to come out and try to do it again."