Series preview: Rockets vs. Blazers
Our 5-on-5 crew breaks down the first-round matchup between the Rockets and Blazers:
1. What's the scariest thing -- good or bad -- about the Rockets?
Henry Abbott, ESPN.com: Dwight Howard missed some games recently, so you might think he's coming into the playoffs hobbled. But after watching him against the Spurs, I think it's more like he's coming into the playoffs rested. He's a monster around the rim again. City of Roses, "Robin Lopez foul trouble" is the thing to obsess about.
Tom Haberstroh, ESPN Insider: Howard is healthy and playing like it. Few people will notice that in the aftermath of the Lakers' debacle. But Howard hasn't looked better in years. He's shooting 64 percent since the All-Star break and plugging holes in Houston's porous perimeter defense. The two-way star is back.
Rahat Huq, Red94: Scariest for Rockets fans? Coach Kevin McHale drawing up an out-of-bounds play. Scariest for opponents? James Harden coming full speed in the open court and Harden turning the corner on a pick-and-roll. In whatever manner of choice, in these closing months of the season, Harden has been downright frightening.
Daniel Nowell, TrueHoop Network: For Portland? Patrick Beverley. The idea that the Rockets' ultra-physical pest might miss postseason time with his injured knee surely sat well with Damian Lillard, who has struggled against Beverley and has been bothered by his relentless defense. If Beverley is moving at close to full speed, he is a one-man stick in the Blazers' spokes at the point of attack.
Ethan Sherwood Strauss, TrueHoop: Harden and his ability to foul you out of the league. Getting within three feet of Harden is a dangerous proposition because his self-imposed whiplash is always liable to draw whistles. He also happens to be a brilliant offensive player with the most stylish facial hair in hoops. That's a scary combination of talents.
2. What's the scariest thing -- good or bad -- about the Blazers?
Abbott: 3s, 3s and more 3s. If the Blazers shoot enough of 'em and have the slightest luck hitting 'em, they'll win. I'm not picking Portland because this season Houston is a little better at defending the arc (opponents shooting 35 percent, instead of 37 last season), while to my eyes it's especially effective against the Blazers, who make 37 percent of 3s against the league this season but just 32 percent against Houston.
Haberstroh: Their inexperience. Outside of Robin Lopez, none of their starters has made it out of the first round, and you can throw head coach Terry Stotts into that mix as well. That speaks to their relative youth, but if they can get behind the idea that they have nothing to lose, this could be an advantage against a more pressured Rockets team.
Huq: The outside shooters getting hot. Wes Matthews has been huge against Houston this season, and he'll need to continue his torrid shooting to give LaMarcus Aldridge the operating room he needs.
Nowell: The shooting. Although the Blazers lack a player who will bring the sort of heightened ferocity that Patrick Beverley might, the Blazers will keep opposing coaches up trying to figure out how to take away the Blazers' myriad shooters. At different times, Portland will run out five legitimate 3-point threats revolving around one of the sweeter-shooting power forwards in the game.
Strauss: Damian Lillard's ability to hit "bad" shots has to scare any defense. It's especially scary to the Rockets given the status of Beverley's knee. We stopped talking about Lillard after the Blazers tailed off, but his first playoff series could be a big one. Houston's perimeter defense is shaky.
3. Who's the biggest X factor in this series?
Abbott: Damian Lillard. The Blazers might struggle to find open 3s, but in Steph Curry fashion, all the 3s seem open when that guy's shooting them.
Haberstroh: Wes Matthews. His importance in containing James Harden is twofold: to keep the All-Star in check and to help keep the depleted Portland bigs out of foul trouble. Harden hit some absurd shots in their last time out, but he also cut into the teeth way too often. That'll need to be fixed. And if Matthews can splash in some 3s? Icing on the cake.
Huq: Omer Asik. Terrence Jones and Houston's small-ball power forward options (aside from Harden) don't really stand a chance against Aldridge. If Houston advances, it will be because the bulky but nimble-footed Asik will have played a part in slowing down Portland's All-Star big man as he's done in Houston's wins this season over the Blazers.
Nowell: Nic Batum, who is a nightly triple-double threat and a nightly risk of floating through a game more or less unseen. If he's cashing in open looks, crashing the boards and finding open cutters with his laid-back panache, he's a one-of-a-kind offensive piece who takes the Blazers from pesky upstarts to an offensive hydra.
Strauss: Batum has an opportunity against the aforementioned leaky Rockets perimeter defense. He's not generally someone who calls his own number, but that could change if he's being guarded by the likes of Chandler Parsons and Harden. If he has a big series, Portland will be in good shape.
4. What's one BOLD prediction for this series?
Abbott: Omer Asik won't be a big factor. A year ago he was arguably the best defensive big man in the league, and the playoffs against this team would be the perfect setting for a space-eating big man to be felt. But his heart just doesn't appear to be in it.
Haberstroh: Patrick Beverley gets the celebratory game ball more than James Harden or Dwight Howard. The casual fan might not know it, but Beverley will set the tone for the Rockets on both ends of the floor. If he can torment Damian Lillard on the big stage, that's half the battle for the Rockets.
Huq: A Beverley-Lillard scuffle at some point ... within the first 48 minutes. This one is perhaps more inevitable than bold, as both players had some choice words about the other after the teams' last meeting. Lillard thinks Beverley fouls incessantly; Beverley thinks Lillard whines. They'll get each other for at least four games.
Nowell: Multiple overtime games. The matchups between these two have been high-scoring, frenetic affairs, and with the way their styles mirror each other, I think we'll see this series be decided by narrow margins.
Strauss: The teams will combine to hit at least 30 3-pointers in a game. This will be a great series for those of us who love the long ball.
5. Who wins this series and in how many games?
Abbott: Houston in 7.
Haberstroh: Houston in 5. The Rockets' offense has been torching teams over the past few months, and I'm afraid the Blazers aren't equipped to handle their weapons.
Huq: Houston in 5. The Rockets handled the Blazers with ease in the regular season, taking the series 3 to 1. Portland has no answer for James Harden (30 PPG, 48 percent shooting) and Dwight Howard (26 PPG, 63 percent). Although LaMarcus Aldridge has gotten his against the Rockets, Patrick Beverley has corralled Damian Lillard below his averages on the season. I'd be shocked if this one went longer than six.
Nowell: Houston in 7. Recency bias tempts me to choose the Blazers, who have just one loss since Aldridge returned from injury, but Houston has the superior firepower, and with Beverley in the lineup a second defender to help Howard snuff out the Portland attack. I think this is close, but Houston is the reasonable pick.
Strauss: Houston in 7. Even though Portland got a massive boost when Aldridge returned, Houston is still the better, more balanced team. I say this series goes seven, with the Rockets winning a close one at home to advance.