NBA Playoff Preview: Houston Rockets vs. Portland Trail Blazers

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SEASON RECORDS

Houston Rockets: 54-28

Portland Trail Blazers: 54-28

KEY INJURIES

Houston Rockets: none

Portland Trail Blazers: none

OFFENSE/DEFENSE RANKINGS (points per 100 possession)

Houston Rockets: Offense 108.6 (4th in NBA), Defense 103.1 (12th in NBA)

Portland Trail Blazers: Offense 108.3 (5th in NBA), Defense 104.7 (16th in NBA)

THREE KEYS TO THE SERIES

1) Will anyone stop anyone?

Cue the fireworks. This is the only first-round series featuring two top-five offenses.

Both teams have middling defenses, indicating both offenses will win the proverbial battles. Even when narrowing to playoff rotations, both teams perform worse defensively.

There is defensive talent on both sides, though. The Rockets have Patrick Beverley, Dwight Howard and Omer Asik. The Trail Blazers have Robin Lopez, Nicolas Batum and Wesley Matthews. Yet, neither team has put together a strong defense.

This might come down to whether James Harden or Damian Lillard, notoriously disinterested defenders, summons more defensive effort.

2) Will this just be a parade to the rim for the Rockets?

More specific to the general defensive concerns, Portland faces a particularly daunting challenge in keeping Houston away from the rim.

The Rockets take 39.8 percent of their shots at the rim, best among playoff teams. The Trail Blazers allow their opponents to take 34.0 percent of their shots at the rim, worst among playoff teams.

Portland must somehow cut off Harden’s attacks (by methods other than fouling and sending him to the line for easy points) and keep Howard from getting too deep (maybe fouling him, in certain situations, is OK). Even the Trail Blazers’ soft pick-and-roll coverage might not do the trick. The Rockets both drive and roll with reckless abandon.

The Trail Blazers need a new trick up their sleeves.

3) What happens between Damian Lillard and Patrick Beverley?

The starting point guards don’t exactly like each other.

Lillard is a small-college player trying to prove himself as an NBA superstar, and Beverley is an underdog scrapper himself. Because they’re so proud (and so similar), there’s frequently friction when they meet.

In this series, their matchup is key. Beverley will try to hound Lillard defensively, disrupting Portland’s offense by making its point guard miserable. Lillard is more skilled. Beverley is more physical.

Whichever wins out could swing the series.

PREDICTION

The Trail Blazers slipped from their perch atop the Western Conference after a 31-9 start, but they’ve bounced back. Portland won its last five and nine of ten, providing momentum entering the playoffs. But the Rockets won the season series, 3-1, so they have homecourt advantage.

Rockets in 7

Chris Paul thanks Clipper fans in online statement

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Chris Paul is as competitive a guy as there is in the NBA — he and James Harden are not the smoothest fit next to one another, but he would rather team with another star and go hard at the Warriors juggernaut than sit back and collect a check.

That’s why CP3 wanted to go to the Rockets as part of the trade reported Wednesday.

But before he left, he wanted to say thank you to Clippers fans.

Paul is committed to his charity causes, he’s not giving those up. He’s likely keeping his home in Los Angeles, too — L.A. is the unofficial off-season home of the NBA anyway.

Rockets make series of cash trades for expiring contracts to help line up Chris Paul deal

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While everyone was rightfully raving about the move by the Houston Rockets to trade for Chris Paul — you have to love a team not cowering from the Warriors but willing to take them on Game of Thrones style — there was one little catch. The trade, as first announced, didn’t pencil out.

Because the Rockets were over the cap, this trade needs to be a salary match. The Clippers were getting back nice young players in Sam Decker and Montrezl Harrell, plus a first-round pick, but the salaries still didn’t match up. Then a string of small cash deals for expiring contracts started rolling in.

All those deals are official — and led to one of the funniest tweets of the year.

All three of those players will head to the Clippers as part of the official trade, but then be waived by the Clippers so they don’t actually pay them.

Also of note, by staying above the salary cap line (as opposed to diving below it to absorb CP3’s contract) the Rockets will keep their mid-level exception, giving them a full $8.4 million to spend in free agency to get a role player to help fill out the roster in Houston.

The Rockets are not done big game hunting, GM Daryl Morey is reportedly going after Paul George and maybe free agents such as Paul Millsap. Carmelo Anthony reportedly would like a buyout so he can get to Houston now, but with Phil Jackson gone and $55 million owed over the next few years that seems more up in the air. Regardless, expect the Rockets to keep making small moves to set up big ones.

Reports: Rockets not done, looking at Paul George, other possible third big star

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If you’re going to go toe-to-toe with the Golden State Warriors, you can’t have enough elite talent on the roster. Which is turning the Western Conference into a Game of Thrones.

Houston has James Harden and just added Chris Paul — and GM Daryl Morey is not done, he’s targeting Paul George and other stars. That according to multiple reports from ESPN, starting with Jeff Goodman.

Rockets GM Daryl Morey not done yet, source told ESPN. Harden and CP3. Will try to add a third star to compete with Warriors.

The logistics of this would be difficult, but not impossible. The Pacers want a first-round pick, which the Rockets can include if the Pacers will wait until 2020 (the Rockets 2018 pick goes to the Clippers, 1-3 protected, which means they can’t trade 2019). With Sam Decker traded to LA, the Rockets may not have a young player of interest outside of Clint Capella (the Pacers have Myles Turner at center), but the Rockets have made a series of cash deals for non-guaranteed contracts to make this work with the Clippers and pave the way for future deals.

Also possible, the Rockets look for a way to land Paul Millsap (or maybe a lesser version, like Serge Ibaka) in free agency.

The Rockets also could target guys such as Carmelo Anthony or Dwyane Wade, if they are bought out. Anthony is rumored to want a buyout to go to Houston now, but with Phil Jackson out and being owed $55 million over a couple years, that may not happen.

The point is the Rockets are going all in — they see the window as now and, unlike much of the rest of the West and the NBA, they are not going to wait and hope for the Warriors to wilt in a few years.

Knicks fans celebrating Phil Jackson’s departure on social media

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When the Knicks hired Phil Jackson, he was a beacon of hope for an organization that had seen dark days. Jackson was going to keep owner James Dolan out of basketball decisions (he did that) and provide a direction for the franchise (he failed to do that).

Now, three year’s later, Jackson is out as president of the Knicks.

That had Knicks fans celebrating on social media.

HALLELUJAH.

A post shared by Spike Lee (@officialspikelee) on

That’s just a small sampling. So all is good with the Knicks now, right?