The Portland Trail Blazers beat the Golden State Warriors 119–117 in an absolute thriller Sunday evening to secure at least the fifth position in the Western Conference playoffs. The win also locked the Blazers into a first round series with the Houston Rockets, who won the season series against Portland 3–1. Luckily for the Blazers, the playoffs are a completely different animal, where matchups and coaching decisions are more relevant than ever.
Damian Lillard vs. Patrick Beverly
Patrick Beverly doesn’t offer up a whole lot offensively, so the success of this matchup will be determined by Damian Lillard’s offensive output. Beverly is a pest on defense and likes to get in the grill of opposing point guards. The Rockets guard has bothered Lillard in the past, including the infamous play that drew an offensive foul on Lillard causing him to foul out in overtime earlier in the season.
This matchup is pivitol for the Blazers because big points from Lillard will be key in outscoring a high-octane Rockets team. The Blazers’ defense is far from number one in the NBA, and they have relied on high scoring all season. Lillard is one of the biggest reasons for the Blazers’ high scoring, with his high assist numbers and three point shooting. If Beverly can bother Lillard, it could be a long series for Portland.
Wesley Matthews vs. James Harden
Even if the Blazers’ defense isn’t their staple, Wesley Matthews has always been the man to guard big time players in big time situations. He’ll have to do that for Portland in their first round series against one of the premier shooting guards of the league in James Harden.
The Beard has proven himself as a phenomenal scorer in his career, and Portland has experienced that first hand in their games against Houston this year. One of those games was a 41-point outburst in an overtime win for the Rockets, which included a game-tying three to send it to overtime.
Harden is going to score in this series, there is no denying that. What’s key for Portland is how he earns his points, and Matthews is going to do his best to make him work for every single bucket he gets. On the other side of the ball, it is important that Matthews doesn’t camp out on the three point line. Running around screens and looking for open shots will make Harden’s life difficult on defense, and tire him out offensively.
Nicolas Batum vs. Chandler Parsons
Both players can hit the three ball and play defense, and this matchup looks like a push on paper. For the Blazers to take advantage of this small forward battle, it will be important that they limit Parsons’ opportunities. He is a proven shooter, and he has already killed Portland once this season going for 30 earlier in the year. Wide open shots and drives will kill the Blazers, especially if it’s coming from Parsons, someone who shouldn’t be a big scorer.
Batum has always been an X-factor for Portland, and that will continue to be true in this series. He has come alive as a passer this year, but what’s important in the playoffs is how aggressive a scorer he is. Batum needs to get his points. He can score, it just comes down to his aggressiveness. A playoff triple-double would be nice, too.
LaMarcus Aldridge vs. Terrence Jones
The Rockets play a stretch four, someone who LaMarcus Aldridge should eat up inside. Jones is no joke however, the Portland native has come up huge as of late for a struggling Rockets team. He is diverse on offense, with his ability to shoot and put the ball on the floor.
What’s huge in this matchup will be Jones’ defense on the Blazers’ three time all-star. Where Aldridge goes the Blazers goes, that much has been clear since his return from injury. Portland has gone 8–1 leading into the final regular season game against the Clippers. Aldridge should be able to get his points with a smaller forward on him, but the Blazers won’t just need average scoring to win this series. Aldridge will need to dominate this matchup for Portland to come out victorious.
Robin Lopez vs. Dwight Howard
Dwight Howard has torn Portland up in the past, going for 32 points and 17 rebounds in a game earlier this season. Like Harden, Howard will get his points in this series. A big storyline will be his free throw shooting, which is known for being terrible. But for some reason Howard seems to always shoot well against Portland.
This matchup will be offensively heavy on Howard’s side, but more important will be the Blazers’ ability to get Howard in foul trouble. If Howard is on the bench, that means that the Blazers are attacking the paint, and taking out one of the best low post scorers in the league. Howard can’t beat Lopez or Portland from the sidelines.