Friday, April 17, 2009

Rip City Report: It's Playoff Time!

By Jeremy Lloyd

After a loooooong 6 year wait, the Blazers are finally back in the playoffs. Game 1 of Portland's 7-game series vs. the Houston Rockets is set for this Saturday at 7:30pm at the Rose Garden. The game can be seen on ESPN and KGW. Want tickets? Good luck, they're sold out. If you absolutely must be in the building no matter what the cost, check with, or your friendly neighborhood scalper--but be prepared to open that wallet wide.

Red Hot and Rolling
The Blazers enter the playoffs winners of 10 of their last 11 games, and just about every player on the roster is playing their best ball of the season right now. LaMarcus Aldridge has been an absolute beast in the paint the past three months, Rudy Fernandez has regained his stroke from three-point territory, Travis Outlaw closed out the season with back-to-back 21-point games, vets Joel Przybilla and Steve Blake have been as solid as ever, and Brandon Roy has solidified his status as nothing less than a superstar. Even the much maligned Greg Oden has been finding his rhythm off the bench of late; and against a big and strong Rockets team, he'll be needed in the playoffs more than ever.

The Matchup

The #4 seed Blazers (54-28) were hoping to avoid a first round meeting with the #5 seed Rockets (53-29) for obvious reasons. Portland went 1-2 against Houston during the regular season, their only victory coming on a buzzer beating three-point prayer by Brandon Roy early in the season at the Rose Garden.

What scares the Blazers about the Rockets? Three things. First, 7-foot-6 center Yao Ming is a tough cover for any NBA defender, and if he can get Przybilla and Oden in early foul trouble (which Oden especially is prone to), it'll force Portland to go to a smaller lineup which Houston will most certainly take advantage of with their big men up front. Second, Ron Artest and Shane Battier are exceptional wing defenders, and their combination of size, athleticism and defensive know-how have given Roy fits this season. And as anybody knows, as Roy goes, so go the Blazers. Finally, Houston is a grind-it-out, elbow you in the face, tough team. The Blazers identity of late has been as a controlled running team that plays best when it's getting easy baskets in the open court or secondary fast break. If the Rockets can slow Portland down and make it an ugly game, it won't be to the Blazers' advantage.

Fortunately for the Blazers, the first two of those three points have significant counter arguments. For those worried that Yao will get Oden and Przybilla in foul trouble, consider that generally referees pocket their whistles in the playoffs and let a lot more physical play go, so fouls shouldn't be as much of an issue. And while the Rockets may have found a way to bottle up Roy with Artest and Battier in the regular season, in the postseason teams have much more time to plan for their opponents. Rest assured that coach Nate McMillan and staff have been putting in long hours looking at game film, and already have a plan for how to free up Roy from Houston's smothering defense. The playoffs are all about making adjustments, and the Blazers are sure to come out with a completely different game plan than the regular season. As for the final question--whether the Blazers can play at Houston's sluggish pace--that remains to be seen. The pace of the game always slow down during the postseason, and this series will be no different. It's up to the Blazers to push the tempo whenever they can, but when it's time to grind it out, they'll have to prove they're tough enough--both mentally and physically--to hang with the Rockets if they plan to win this series.

Thanks to a great home court advantage at the Rose Garden (where Portland is a stellar 34-7), the Blazers will likely win all 4 home games and lose all 3 road games. Blazers win it in 7. Next up: Bring on the Lakers!

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