March 20, 2018, 12:46 pm
OPPONENT: Houston Rockets
RECORD: 56-14 (29-8 on road, 9-1 last 10 games)
MEASUREABLES: 113.5 offensive rating (first), 104.4 defensive rating (ninth), +9.1 net rating (second)
INJURIES: Brandan Wright (knee – questionable)
WHEN, WHERE, HOW TO WATCH: 10:30 EST, Moda Center (Portland), TNT
You have to pick your poison with the Houston Rockets.
Play normal help tendencies to make life harder on James Harden and Chris Paul off the dribble, and Houston’s all-world playmakers will dot shooters around the perimeter, further juicing the offense that could become the first in NBA history to attempt more 3-pointers than 2-pointers over a full 82-game season. Stay attached elsewhere and rely on primary defense to limit Harden and Paul, though, and those guys will absolutely feast, lighting up any defender that dares step in front of them – especially one Houston has forced into a switch – to the tune of 1.24 and 1.13 points per possession, respectively, per NBA.com/stats, the two most efficient isolation scoring numbers in the NBA.
Ten days ago, the Toronto Raptors ended Houston’s 17-game winning streak by playing them at their own numbers game. They held the Rockets to 9-of-27 shooting from beyond the arc, a total as impressive for its low amount of makes as its low amount of attempts – and the latter of which was good for a 3-point rate of .33, well below the historic, league-high mark of Mike D’Antoni‘s team. Toronto accomplished that feat by abandoning typical help responsibilities and informing Jonas Valanciunas and Jakob Poeltl to protect the rim first and foremost, allowing them to stay within arm’s length of an attacking Harden or Paul and an awaiting Clint Capela, always looming as a lob threat.
Harden got his production: 40 points on 15-of-22 shooting and 4-of-8 from three. But he had just four assists, one more than Paul, who struggled to find a balance between looking for his own offense and getting others involved en route to 14 points via 13 shots.
The Portland Trail Blazers will surely employ a similar strategy during Tuesday night’s nationally-televised matchup at Moda Center, especially because that approach almost directly aligns with the one that’s propelled them to the league’s seventh-best defense this season. Though Moe Harkless and Evan Turner are likely to open possessions on Harden, the Blazers will routinely succumb to the Rockets’ effort to produce a switch, leaving Damian Lillard, C.J. McCollum and Shabazz Napier to dance with the MVP favorite on the perimeter. When he and Paul use a screen from Capela or Nené, specifically, expect Jusuf Nurkic and Ed Davis to prioritize protecting the rim, counting on the primary defender to prevent a pull-up three and push them to the paint with staunch rearview pursuit.
Harden and Paul will get their points and assists, obviously, and inevitable breakdowns on the periphery will lead to Trevor Ariza, Eric Gordon and the rest heating up at various points throughout the game. The biggest keys to being competitive with the Rockets will be keeping flammable shooters from catching fire, and at least keeping up with their number of points scored from deep. Three-point shooting was a problem for the Blazers early in their eye-popping win over the Los Angeles Clippers on Sunday, but they ended the game by going 14-of-29 from beyond the arc, including 7-of-11 shooting between Harkless and Al-Farouq Aminu.
Those guys are in a groove right now, and the Blazers are pinging the ball all over the floor; they haven’t been this connected offensively all season long. Houston’s defense knows the numbers game just as well as Portland’s, though, and is among the most switch-adept teams in the league. Paul can defend players far bigger than him, Harden is an extremely underrated post defender and Capela can make life tough on even the most dynamic guards by sliding his feet with active arms on the perimeter. Just like the Blazers will try and make Harden and Paul beat them, the Rockets will do the same with Lillard and McCollum.
Streaks always come to an end – just ask Houston. Will Portland get its 14th consecutive victory? We’ll find out tonight, in one of the most highly-anticipated games of the Blazers’ season.