Why the Rockets should have no problem against the Trail Blazers

James Harden #13 of the Houston Rockets in action against Damian Lillard #0 of the Portland Trail Blazers (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)
James Harden #13 of the Houston Rockets in action against Damian Lillard #0 of the Portland Trail Blazers (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images) /

The Houston Rockets have had impressive victories over the Dallas Mavericks and the Milwaukee Bucks, and will look to continue their success against the Portland Trail Blazers.

No team has been as impressive as the Houston Rockets since the NBA season resumed. The Rockets have had victories over the Dallas Mavericks and the Milwaukee Bucks, the league’s top offensive and defensive teams.

Meanwhile, the Portland Trail Blazers (the Rockets’ next opponent) split their first two games of the restart, with a victory over the Memphis Grizzlies and a loss to the Boston Celtics. The teams are trending in the opposite direction as the Rockets look to be shooting up the standings and the Trail Blazers are teetering on the edge of the playoff picture.

The Rockets are the clear favorites, but the Blazers are capable of testing any team on their night.

The Rockets victory over the Milwaukee Bucks put the entire league on notice. It also proved that small-ball can stand tall even in the face of the league’s best defensive frontcourt and its most dominant interior scorer in Giannis Antetokounmpo.

The Rockets have exclusively featured their micro-ball lineups during the restart, and have blitzed their opponents off the court late in games to overcome fourth quarter deficits. The Rockets are surely hoping to reverse the trend of needing late-game heroics but if they should find themselves trailing late against the Trail Blazers, they’ll have the calm and confidence to find a way to win.

The Trail Blazers’ almost pulled off a stunning comeback on Sunday, when they fell to the Boston Celtics 124-128. Down 67-48 at halftime, the Trail Blazers stormed back in the second half to hold a 105-101 lead, with just five minutes of play in the fourth quarter.

In the end, the Trail Blazers were unable to hold onto their lead and dropped a crucial game that saw them drop a half-game behind the San Antonio Spurs in the race for the West’s ninth seed. This game is a must-win for the Trail Blazers who are hoping to capitalize on the return of Jusuf Nurkic in their push for the postseason.

The Trail Blazers’ offense has been the driving force behind their success this season, but the defense has dragged down a team that had massive aspirations after reaching the Western Conference Finals in the previous season. The Rockets average more points per game (118.7 to 114.2) and allow fewer (114.9 to 115.7) than the Trail Blazers, which explains the massive discrepancy in the win column (42 to 30).

Both teams rely on their superstar backcourts, but the Rockets’ combination of James Harden and Russell Westbrook have the edge over Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum.

Mike D’Antoni has kept the Rockets’ rotation to only eight players in the first two games of the restart, which is likely due to Eric Gordon’s ankle injury. D’Antoni has also asked his players to play through tremendous foul trouble with no ill-effects yet.

The Rockets could use a game where they get ahead early and are able to cruise to victory. Another long slog could have negative implications for the Rockets if they want to make a deep playoff run.

Damian Lillard is the engine that powers the Trail Blazers night in and night out. The 2019-20 season has been his best season thus far, as he has increased his scoring output by becoming even more dangerous from deep.

His long-time running mate CJ McCollum has had his usually impressive offensive season but both are defensive sieves. The return of Jusuf Nurkic from injury could help Portland’s low-post scoring and defense but top-to-bottom the Houston Rockets have the superior roster.

James Harden and Russell Westbrook have taken turns producing masterful performances. Harden was unstoppable against the Mavericks, scoring 49 points, while Westbrook helped collapse and bludgeon the Bucks’ league-best defense for 31 points on only 21 shots.

The Rockets can almost always count on a big night from one of their two MVPs but Danuel House has been a key part of their offense by knocking down 50 percent of this 3-point attempts (10-of-20) since the restart.

The Rockets are playing the best basketball in the league right now, while the same struggles that led to the Trail Blazers losing record continue to crop up. In the modern NBA, a hot night from three can make any game close but the Rockets have more firepower and are more stout on the defensive end.

Outside of some brilliant bursts of offense from Damian Lillard, the Houston Rockets should have no problem limiting the Trail Blazers with their switch-everything defense that lives in opponents’ passing lanes. Russell Westbrook should have a field day blowing by the likes of CJ McCollum and Damian Lillard.

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The only thing that could realistically inhibit the Rockets’ chances is foul trouble, as it has the ability to force D’Antoni to reach further into his rapidly shrinking bench. The Rockets should have no problem claiming victory and continue their perfect start to life in the bubble.