All of the roads have been walked. All paths have led to this. Now a best-of-7 determines who goes home, and who fights on. While the Portland Trail Blazers’ season has had its share of ups and downs, all that matters is the team directly in front of them: the Houston Rockets.
A positional breakdown will help try and tell the future, and give an educated guess on which team will get to play on.
Center: Robin Lopez versus Dwight Howard
Lopez has been a pleasant surprise in his first season in the Rose City, averaging 11 and 8 with almost two blocks per game. The Blazers do not need him to be a superhero in this matchup. Simply stopping Howard from claiming easy offensive rebounds and putting pressure on him in the paint is all that the Blazers will ask. Howard is slowed by a few nagging injuries, and Lopez can force other Rockets players to take on the burden down low. That said, Howard is a superstar at his best, a talent level that Lopez just cannot match.
Power Forward: LaMarcus Aldridge versus Terrence Jones
Concerns swirled around Portland regarding Aldridge’s injured lower back that their star would not be at full strength for the playoffs. Any concern about that went out the window when Aldridge returned and powered the Blazers to eight wins in nine games. Aldridge is a game-changing, consistent force that will force the Rockets to move around defenders to lock him down. This will give plenty of opportunities for Portland’s other talented scorers to light up the building. Aldridge versus Jones is hardly a fair matchup.
Small Forward: Nicolas Batum versus Chandler Parsons
On paper, this matchup looks awful for the Blazers. While Batum is a solid defender, and an effective if spotty shooter, Parsons has risen in his second season to be one of the best young players in the league. That is, until you account for Parsons’ wrist and hip injuries. If he cannot get the quick burst to evade Batum because of his hip, Batum can lock him down and take away one of Houston’s best assets. When Portland has the ball, Batum is the lead distributor, along with a potential triple-double threat. Game One will tell everything that needs to be said. If Parsons is down a step, Batum can take advantage. If Parsons’ injuries are mild as Houston’s staff would indicate, Batum will have his hands full.
Shooting Guard: Wesley Matthews versus James Harden
If there is a matchup that Blazers fans are terrified of, it is this one. James Harden is one of the most dynamic scoring guards in the NBA, and there is very little chance Matthews will be able to keep him in check. If Howard is slowed by injury, the Blazers may force a double-team on Harden at every opportunity, but between Parsons, Howard and Harden, someone is getting through. Harden will turn the series into a shootout, and the series may hinge on Harden and Damian Lillard.
Point Guard: Damian Lillard versus Patrick Beverley
Lillard has been a scoring force all season long for the Blazers, and there is zero reason to expect him to stop now. This may be his first playoff game for Portland, but do not let that fool you, Lillard will be ready. Beverly has been slowed by a knee injury and has been a hit-or-miss shooter for most of the season. While Lillard is a below average defender at best, Beverly is not a lockdown defender by any stretch. The Blazers will need Lillard to exploit this matchup as much as possible to match the Rockets offensive output.
Sixth Man: Mo Williams versus Jeremy Lin
Williams has given the Trail Blazers a consistent scorer off the bench, something they lacked for the last few seasons. Though he missed a couple weeks with a hip injury, Williams should be at full power for the playoffs. Lin has had an on-and-off season, though he abused the Blazers the last time out to the tune of 26 points, including 10-of-12 from the charity stripe. Clearly the Blazers would prefer Lin not matchup against Lillard, so expect matchup changes.
Outside of Williams, the Blazers bench has been inconsistent at best. C.J. McCollum has shown promise in his rookie campaign, and Thomas Robinson showed some of the talent that made him a Top-5 draft pick. But neither Joel Freeland nor Meyers Leonard has been an effective big man, and Dorell Wright has been up-and-down. The Rockets have a good big man off the bench in Omar Asik, who has proven to be a strong scorer when Howard is not on the court. Omri Casspi gives the Rockets another good option at the small forward position.
This series looks to be a high scoring affair, with Aldridge and Lillard versus Howard and Harden. But while the stars are in the starting five, the Rockets have a better overall depth, and that is what will seal Portland’s fate.
Final Prediction: Houston in 7