The playoffs are finally here, after a sterling regular season. An unease rests over the City of Roses, however, as the Blazers head south to Houston to take on a Rockets squad that won the season series three games to one.
The similarities between this year and 2008 are undeniably sinister. Down the line, this feels an awful lot like the last time Portland made the playoffs after a multiple-year absence —a humbling, gut-punching experience.
Both times, Portland took a young roster and turned in 50-plus wins. Both times they stormed in with confidence. Both times they faced a Rockets team with a dominating center, a nightmare battle at point guard, and a wing player capable of taking over a game.
Needless to say, a few things must change this time around in order to escape the first round.
The Portland Trail Blazers find themselves back in the post season for the first time since 2010–11, when they took eventual champion Dallas to six games in round one. Head coach Terry Stotts, a clear Coach of the Year candidate who was an assistant on that Dallas team, brings experience and stability to a young squad that surprised many—if not all—by racking up 54 wins and finishing in the fifth spot in the loaded west.
Portland, which rebounded from a brutal March to finish the season 9–1, will rely heavily on their two All-Stars LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard, but it’s the other factors that will determine just how long this dream season can go.
WHICH BATUM WILL SHOW UP?
The secret to beating the Blazers is simple—prevent a third scorer from emerging. Teams that have kept Nicolas Batum, Wesley Matthews and Mo Williams under control have had their way with Portland, rendering their offensive attack useless. Mo Williams has been a rock star, leading the league in assists off the bench, and Portland is in double figures when he scores. You can expect him to do his part in the playoffs, as he will likely be guarded by defensively-deficient Jeremy Lin.
The real key to success falls on the shoulder of Batum.
During Aldridge’s absence in March, Batum was a man possessed, setting career highs in rebounds on three separate occasions and showing an aggressiveness that fans have been screaming for. With Aldridge back, Batum can focus more on scoring and defense, as he will be faced with one of the most important tasks in the series—keeping sharp-shooter Chandler Parsons from going off. Much like Portland, Houston relies on two main threats— Dwight Howard and James Harden—but guys like Chandler are what set them apart. If Batum keeps up the aggressive play, can kick in 15 points and limit Parsons. You have to like Portland’s chances.
CAN LILLARD KEEP HIS HEAD?
Without a doubt, the biggest matchup going into the series rests in the back court: Patrick Beverley vs. Damian Lillard. The regulars season saw these two going at it multiple times, with Beverley clearly getting in Lillard’s head with his in-your-face defense and gnat-like pestering. When he’s on his game, Lillard is a top-tier point guard; when he’s off, he can be a detriment to the team, hoisting up bad shots and making head-scratching turnovers.
If Beverley can play mind games and make Lillard lose focus on the main goal, Portland has absolutely no chance.
Lillard wants to be one of the greats; overcoming obstacles is part of that, and now Beverley is his biggest one.
CAN LOPEZ STAY ON THE FLOOR?
No one can stop Dwight Howard one-on-one; he’s simply too good. But Robin Lopez, one of the main reasons for Portland’s turnaround, is the best chance Portland has at slowing him down. At seven feet, Lopez is bigger than Dwight, is a smart defender and has just enough mobility to keep Howard from exploding. If Lopez can avoid foul trouble (something he has done remarkably well all season), this will help slow down a potentially huge advantage for the Rockets.
If Portland had a healthy Joel Freeland behind Lopez, things would be a little less dire. However, after having played just one game, no one is sure what they will get from Joel, who was an intricate part of the Blazers ‘early-season run.
While the similarities are scary, something feels a bit different from the last time these two met in the playoffs. There was no playoff-rally in downtown, no “We’re-just-stoked-to-be-here” attitude. Portland has a little more experience, a little more fire power.
However, at the end of the day, the writing is on the wall; Houston—namely Howard and Harden—will shoot way too many free throws for Portland to overcome. Portland makes it interesting, and this may be the best series of all, but at the end of the day, the Rockets will simply get too many calls.
Rockets in seven wild and incredibly entertaining games.