“For THREEEE.” Insert your best overanxious announcer voice. You may be hearing it a lot when the Houston Rockets and Portland Trail Blazers face off in their first round matchup of the NBA Playoffs.
Houston, an advanced stat geeks dream, taking all the right shots from all the right places on the floor. A team that only resorts to firing mid-range jumpers on 5.7% of their scoring plays is a team after my own heart. When you add in that they supplement the 47.3% of their points coming from the paint with the 26.5% that comes from deep, you get a scoring chart that looks something like this.1 Houston, especially Dwight Howard (55%), shoot the fifth worst percentage from the charity stripe in close games with less than five minutes remaining. All while having the second most attempts per game in the clutch, behind only the team they’ll be opposing in this series.
The love-fest is over; let’s give each team their due diligence. For all the love I just gave Houston, the Trail Blazers finished with an identical 54-28 record. Also, as noted above, there is not team that shoots more free throws in the clutch than Portland, and they convert at the third best rate (84.3%). This clutch free throw shooting is led by point guard, Damian Lillard, who sits in 10th in free throws attempted in the clutch, just behind Howard, and shows an impressive 86% on such opportunities. This is more of an offensive squad, ranking fifth in the NBA in offense, but they are also the most improved defensive team from the All-Star break on, improving from 105.7 points/100 possessions to 103.0 per.
Keys to the Series
- Get out to an early lead. The late game situations I just pored over illustrate one thing about all else, the Rockets need to get ahead before the game nears the end. The Blazers are one of the best at holding the lead while the Rockets are one of the worst at it. Combine that with James Hardens’ inability to guard his position, as seen here, and the Rockets will need to give themselves a cushion for the late-game.
- Follow your shots. Long three-point attempts mean long rebound chances LaMarcus Aldridge and Robin Lopez will be boxing out near the lane, but if that ball takes a hard bounce off the rim, shooters will have a chance to collect their own rebounds. Patrick Beverly is fourth in the NBA in offensive rebounds at the guard position with 1.3 per game. Keep that trending upwards and keep the ball out of the hands of the opposition.
- Don’t let Howard beat you. According to NBA.com/stats, Howard averaged 25.5 points per game against the Blazers, the highest he averaged against any Western Conference foe. Double-team Howard if you have to, and you do, and let Terrence Jones try to beat you from the power forward position. Jones is taking 9 shots per game to reach his average of 12 points per game, I’ll take that ratio compared to the efficiency of Howard against Robin Lopez.
- Protect the paint. This can probably be used for any team, but when you’re facing a team that has a plague-like fear of taking mid-range jumpers, if you can eliminate the drive or the three to a high degree, it forces Houston to score in a way they aren’t comfortable with. The Rockets likely have the skill-set to score from the mid-range if needed, but the change in scheme will be difficult to deal with at first.
Wesley Matthews – There is one reason he shows up here, and one reason that his scoring jumps by almost five points per game when playing the Rockets, he plays the 2-guard. Matthews is guarded by the opposing shooting guard often, he is defended by James Harden. Here is why that is a problem. If Matthews has the mentality for it, this could be an emergent series for him.
Trail Blazers in 7
I struggled with this pick. I’m a self-admitted Rockets lover, I have been following them for a few years and I love the changes that Daryl Morey has made to the roster and how he has done it. But, the late game ability of the Blazers should steal a game or two from the Rockets, giving them the upper hand. Predicting anything in seven is much more like throwing up your hands and shaking your head, but for the sake of argument, I think Wesley Matthews will help take this “upset.”
dark blue is above average attempts, light blue is below average ↩