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Saturday, April 19, 2014
Blazers, Rockets take similar paths to Rd. 1

By Daniel Nowell
Special to ESPN.com


The Portland Trail Blazers and Houston Rockets tip off Sunday in a first-round matchup that will seem, in many ways, like warp-speed shadow boxing.

This series is perhaps the most stylistically even of any in the opening round -- both teams are in the league’s top five in 3-point attempts, and both are in the top 10 in pace. Both are defined by inside-out, All-Star combinations, and both are led by staid coaches who believe in letting it fly when the opportunity presents itself. Both teams are in the middle third of the league in defensive rating, so fans of high-scoring marksmanship competitions will likely find this matchup irresistible.

For all the broad-stroke similarities between the two teams, however, the truly compelling aspects will be found in the details. For instance, Portland’s offensive style is committed to flow and ball movement; the ball tends to move radially around LaMarcus Aldridge post-ups in Portland, swinging around until it produces a seam to attack inward.

Houston, conversely, relies very much on James Harden’s ability to produce from the outside in, beating the game into submission with drive after drive to the rim and the free throw lane. In fact, with the league increasingly favoring shots at the rim and behind the arc as cornerstones of healthy offense, Portland and Houston represent two contrasting approaches to realizing the ideal.

On the one hand, Portland has an almost principled commitment to an open, aesthetically pleasing style of basketball, and coach Terry Stotts takes pride in a fan-friendly product. Houston, on the other hand, combines random bursts of transition frenzy with a stubborn, almost cynical dedication to producing free throws with Harden drives and Dwight Howard post-ups.

If you wanted to read that ideological divide into the teams’ organizational characters, you’d find plenty to support it. In Houston’s corner is GM Daryl Morey, high-volume trader king of the league, and his counterpart is former actor and workout guy Neil Olshey.

Olshey inherited much of Portland’s core, and what he didn’t inherit he has built with holistic finesse. Aldridge was the lone All-Star when Olshey took over the team -- adding a scoring point guard in Damian Lillard and a yeoman rim protector in Robin Lopez.

Morey inherited … well, who can remember? The Morey model views players as assets, and an accumulation of assets must always be gathering interest. After a few years of stockpiling, he liquidated and found himself holding the gems -- Harden and Howard.

When these teams played this season, it played out more or less how a bookie might call it. Houston held a 3-1 advantage in games and a combined margin of plus-26 points. Where the Blazers have All-Stars, the Rockets have superstars, and Houston has proven slightly more tenacious on defense than Portland.

Among rotation players, Portland has just two real defensive specialists, and, while Lopez and Wesley Matthews are smart, rugged, and dutiful, their Houston counterparts, Howard and Patrick Beverley, are simply more disruptive.

Crucially, Lillard is shooting just 25 percent against Beverley, and his ability to improve upon that mark might well decide the series. The Blazers rely on two pressure valves: Aldridge’s abilities from midrange on the left block and Lillard’s ability to cash in from any range when left unattended.

When Beverley is on the floor, Lillard is hardly ever unattended, and, what’s more, the Houston provocateur has done what few defenders have in seeming to get under Lillard’s skin enough to draw comment. After a particularly physical exchange earlier this season, Lillard somewhat famously told reporters "I’m just not going to let somebody be in my chest doing all that extra stuff." From Portland’s measured young All-Star, that rates as near-vitriol.

On the other side of the ball, the Blazers have had difficulty slowing Harden but might be more concerned with Howard bludgeoning their thin front line. Beyond Lopez, the Blazers lack a real post deterrent, and foul trouble will bring Joel Freeland, recently recovered from a sprained MCL, more in focus than Portland would like. Though the Blazers have consistently proven unable to contain Harden, they’ll need to be just as careful, over two weeks of attrition, not to allow Howard to control the series.

There are other players. Portland’s Nicolas Batum has oscillated between being the West’s most versatile offensive player and a nearly unfelt one; Houston’s Chandler Parsons provides a similar flexibility to the Houston lineups. It appears that everywhere you look this series, a strength is met with a nearly equal one.

Certainly, it appears the Rockets have a wider margin of error, but this series seems destined to provide viewers with the best that postseason basketball has to offer: adjustments, readjustments and two teams who figure to play larger roles over the next few springs.