At least for now, the Rockets' stunning collapse might not be all bad.
The negatives to the Rockets blowing a 14-point, second-half lead at Dallas on Wednesday night, coupled with New Orleans' meltdown in San Antonio, are of course falling from the No. 2 seed, losing home court advantage in the first and second rounds of the playoffs and likely having to meet the Lakers in the second round (if they get there).
The lone positive could be drawing Portland as a first-round opponent, who they'll face in Game 1 at 9:30 Saturday night in Portland. The Rockets took two of three from the Blazers this season, generally controlling all three games and only losing once on an off-balance, 30-foot heave from Brandon Roy at the buzzer.
So, why do the Rockets match up so well with the Blazers? As with everything pertaining to Houston, it all starts with Yao Ming. The Rockets struggle against teams with big men who pull Yao away from the basket, such as Utah, or teams who front him and deny him routine post-entry passes, like Dallas did on Wednesday night and in the 2005 playoffs.
Portland, however, uses former No. 1 pick Greg Oden and one-time Rocket (well, for about 10 minutes) Joel Pryzbilla in traditional defensive settings. They generally defend him one-on-one without fronting, and on offense, neither has the range to bring Yao away from the basket. That's the ideal situation for Yao, the most dominant low-post force in the NBA.
"Not a good one," Oden told Hair Balls of his match-up with Yao after the team's previous meeting on April 5. "I have to get better. I have to learn players better. He's very strong and big and has a good touch."
Even though Yao didn't have great individual numbers (16.3 points, 8.7 rebounds) in his three games against Portland, his presence is conducive to drawing double-teams from a structured defense. That plays directly into the hands of the high-IQ Rockets' role players such as Shane Battier, Aaron Brooks and Luis Scola.
Scola has benefited immensely from the attention Yao draws, averaging 15 points per game against the Blazers on 69 percent shooting. Brooks, who played his college ball in the state at the University of Oregon, poured in 16 per game against the Blazers on 43 percent shooting from the field and 50 percent from behind the arc.
On the other end, Roy facilitates everything with the Portland offense. He's unselfish, intelligent, a great shooter and a great teammate -- all reasons the Rockets were devastated when he went two spots before their selection in the 2006 draft. However, while Roy is a great player, he's a good but not great athlete. What makes him thrive is his combination of fundamentals with a high basketball IQ.
The problem is that Houston can counter Roy with Shane Battier, likely the smartest player in all of basketball. Roy, a 22-points-per-game scorer who shoots an incredibly efficient 48 percent from the field, shot only 39 percent against the Rockets this year. His miraculous three-pointer back in November, which everyone remembers, came against lax defense from Tracy McGrady. That's not likely to happen this series, when he'll be hounded by Battier and Ron Artest.
"They do a very good job," Roy said of Houston's defense after the last game. "They are very physical."
Moreover, LaMarcus Aldridge, the former University of Texas product who is Portland's go-to option down low, appeared completely flustered by Chuck Hayes in the teams' last meeting. Hayes scored nine points and grabbed 10 rebounds in 25 minutes, while forcing Aldridge into multiple turnovers and missed shots after a hot start against Scola.
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"Chuck has played [Aldridge] pretty well every time that we've played them," Rockets coach Rick Adelman said.
The Blazers are 34-7 at home this season, making any appearance in the Rose Garden treacherous. However, in a sport all about the matchups, the Rockets finally seem to have a postseason edge after years of playing teams with unconventional big men. The pick here is for the Rockets to steal one of the first two in Portland before finding their form in Toyota Center, where they were 33-8 this year with two wins over the Blazers.
Prediction: Rockets in 6
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