The road that lies ahead

Road weary and badly in need of some rest, the Trail Blazers (25-17) instead get to deal with chilly winter weather and a pair of weekend home games against the Houston Rockets and Atlanta Hawks.

Road weary and badly in need of some rest, the Trail Blazers (25-17) instead get to deal with chilly winter weather and a pair of weekend home games against the Houston Rockets and Atlanta Hawks.

The Blazers’ grueling seven-game road trip included losses to Toronto, Boston, Orlando and New Orleans, and wins over New Jersey, Miami and Atlanta. For a team that didn’t notch its first road win until a 106-105 win over Memphis that helped spark the infamous 13-game winning streak, 3-4 is an acceptable record by most rubrics.

Despite the relative success on the road, the Rockets are nipping at the Blazers’ heels in the standings. Houston is two games behind the Blazers in the standings and only a half-game out of the playoff picture, giving added significance to tonight’s 7 p.m. match at the Rose Garden.

The Blazers have already lost to the Rockets once, an 89-80 drubbing in Houston in the season’s third game. Yao Ming dominated with 21 points and 12 boards, and the Rockets’ new head coach, Rick Adelman, notched a win over the team he coached so successfully in the 1990s.

Houston will present some matchups that can challenge the Blazers and exploit their weaknesses, especially inside the paint. Expect Yao Ming to dominate the middle and for points to be at a premium. The Rockets play exceptional team defense, slowing games to a molasses tempo and forcing teams into playing ugly.

To win, the Blazers must find a way to shoot the ball well, especially from the perimeter. Three-point shooting percentage leader James Jones missed all four of his shots in the first meeting. Since then Jones is averaging 9.8 points and is shooting 52 percent from long range. His play will be key for the Blazers in this game.

The Blazers will also need a good game from LaMarcus Aldridge, who came up big with 20 points and eight boards in the first meeting. How tough and willing he is to bang inside will go a long way in determining the outcome. Coming off a 17-point, eight-rebound effort against New Orleans Wednesday, Aldridge appears back on the right track after three sub-par games in a row.

After tonight’s game, Portland takes on Atlanta. The Hawks will look to exact a little revenge for their 111-109 overtime loss to Portland Sunday at 3 p.m. Atlanta is in the midst of a five-game swing through the Western Conference, losing to the Blazers’ Northwest Division rival, Denver, 107-100 to start their trip.

The Blazers must do a better job containing Joe Johnson, who broke out with a 37-point, seven-assist effort Monday. Tyronne Lue also came through for the Hawks with 18 points, including 4-4 shooting from three-point land, making up for an off game by emerging star Josh Smith.

Portland is entering a rather crucial stretch of play and must take advantage of being home for the next five games. After Houston and Atlanta, the Blazers take on New York, Denver and Chicago. Denver, the Blazers’ top divisional rival, plays four of its next six games on the road and must face Dallas, New Orleans and a surging Charlotte.

February could prove a challenging month for Portland. After this five-game home stand, the Blazers go on the road for seven of their next 11 games and must face Detroit, Dallas, Boston and the Los Angeles Lakers twice. Having a cushion going into that stretch could prove vital in terms of playoff seeding.

How stacked is the West? More than 15 games separate the eighth seed and the first seed in the Eastern Conference. A mere five games separate Western Conference leader New Orleans from Golden State, currently holding the final playoff spot with a 25-18 record.

Portland is playing well, and the road trip many fans feared would undo the team’s chances for the playoffs went rather well. Yet looking ahead, it’s obvious that the toughest challenges lie in front of Portland. Two wins this weekend would go a long way toward securing something the team hasn’t had in four years-a trip to the postseason.