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