How Houston Got Here:
The Rockets certainly weren’t playing poorly early on this year—they were 21-13 after December—but they took off in the New Year, going on a 23-6 stretch to open 2014. In the end, Dwight Howard, James Harden and co. finished 54-28, good enough for the fourth seed in the exceptionally difficult West.
James Harden was helped by the addition of Dwight Howard this year, as the Rockets evolved into one of the league’s better squads. Howard looked far better than last year, averaging 18 points, 12 boards and 2 blocks a night. Harden, meanwhile, matched his output from last year, once again averaging 25 points. Chandler Parsons.
Even with the addition of Howard, the Rockets still aren’t a great defensive team, falling in the middle of the pack in defensive efficiency. As they did last year, however, the Rockets made their name with their offense, scoring 108.6 points per 100 possessions—a mark that ranked fourth in the league.
How Portland Got Here:
The Trail Blazers got off to a better start than anyone could have imagined, going 21-4 through their first 25 games. From there they plateaued a bit, but still finished with at a very impressive 54-28. Many expected them to get back to the playoffs this year, but getting the fifth seed far exceeded expectations.
Damian Lillard built on his impressive rookie season by once again starting every game for the Blazers and averaging nearly 21 points a night. LaMarcus Aldridge, meanwhile, put in arguably his best season as a pro, averaging 23 and 11 and also being the focal point of Portland’s offense. If they needed a bucket this year, Aldridge was always there to get the job done.
Solid seasons from Nic Batum and Wes Matthews filled in the gaps for the Blazers, grabbing rebounds and knocking down threes from all over the court. Much like Houston, the Blazers were liberal in their use of the three ball, hoisting up over 25 a game—a mark topped only by Atlanta and Houston. They knocked down a good amount as well, shooting 37 percent from downtown to help create the fifth most efficient offense in the league.
Player to Watch for Houston:
Chandler Parsons. He’s the most versatile player on Houston’s roster, capable of knocking down triples and also liable to slash through the lane for a jam. At 6’9” he causes plenty of matchup problems with his ability to space the floor. It will be interesting to see what happens this series, as I’m pretty sure Nic Batum was created with the specific purpose of guarding players like Chandler Parsons. Batum, however, may be given the task of hounding James Harden, in which case Parsons may be covered by the much smaller Wes Matthews. Matthews is a solid defender, but is only about 6’5”, something the Rockets may be able to exploit on the offensive end.
Player to Watch for Portland:
LaMarcus Aldridge. In order for the Blazers to win this series, it’s imperative that Aldridge plays well. He was awesome in the regular season, and the Blazers desperately need that to carry over into the postseason. A poor series by Batum or Matthews could be covered up, but a letdown from Aldridge would be a disaster. He murdered the Rockets in the regular season, averaging 27 and 15 in their four meetings. More games like those would give the Blazers a great chance to move on to the second round.
Why Houston Will Win:
Simple. They’re the more talented team. James Harden and Dwight Howard are two top-ten guys in the league and Chandler Parsons, Terrence Jones, Jeremy Lin are very solid role players. They take advantage of Portland’s porous defense, spread the floor and score like crazy. Meanwhile, they hold Aldridge in check, disrupting Portland’s offense enough to escape with a win in a hard fought series.
Why Portland Will Win:
LaMarcus Aldridge continues his domination of Houston that he began in the regular season and they catch fire from downtown. Batum bothers Harden with his length, which in turn frustrates Harden and leads to the Rockets’ shooting guard trying to force things on offense. No one on Houston steps up to fill Harden’s role and the Blazers do just enough to advance.