The Houston Rockets were supposed to be one of the most dangerous darkhorses in the Western Conference playoff brackets. They could rain down three-pointers at will. They added Dwight Howard to defend the paint and rebound. They had some swagger with the likes of James Harden and Patrick Beverley. Nobody could call them a “favorite” because the stars hadn’t been together as long as those in San Antonio and Oklahoma City. But, this was clearly a team loaded with talent that was poised to step forward in the league’s elite this Spring.
Instead, the team is one loss away from going home early…hurt by soft defense, unreliable long range shooting, and an offensive gameplan that bogs down into hero-ball when it’s time to grab a victory. Analytics darling Houston was supposed to represent the new era of percentage basketball (attack the rim, or launch treys…with nothing in between!). Instead, the skeptics have thus far been proven right. Defense wins championships. Live by the trey, die by the missed trey. Don’t ask Howard to produce consistently under pressure. Don’t assume the refs are going to bail you out on drives late in close games.
Did Houston just run into the wrong team at the wrong time? Portland’s surely playing great basketball. But, teams with athleticism and a variety of scoring weapons are going to give Houston’s weak defensive link trouble no matter who they are. If anything, Portland lacks the depth of other Western threats. Portland is less well suited to beating Houston than those seeded ahead of them. This is a #4 vs. #5 series where the #5 seed has looked like the better playoff team than the #4.
THE SERIES SO FAR
Game One: Portland (+5.5) beat Houston 122-120 in overtime
Game Two: Portland (+6.5) beat Houston 112-105
Game Three: Houston (+3) beat Portland 121-116 in overtime
Game Four: Portland (-3) beat Houston 123-120 in overtime
An extremely competitive series. But, Portland’s been better in crunch time because good looks at two-point shots are more reliable than tired-legged three-pointers or flailing attempts to reach the rim just at the time refs swallow their whistles.
SERIES STRENGTHS FOR PORTLAND
LaMarcus Aldridge as a mid-range sharpshooter
Damian Lillard as a true force driving, scoring, and distributing
Matching Houston free throw for free throw
Matching Houston trey for trey
It’s odd to think of “matching” as a strength. But, Houston is elite at making three-pointers, and elite and earning trips to the free throw line. If you’re playing well enough to cancel those out…then it truly is a team strength.
To this point, the face that Aldridge and Lillard are reliable in crunch time, while Houston has to hope for something good to happen is the main thing separating these teams. It’s a crunch time series given all the overtimes.
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SERIES STRENGTHS FOR HOUSTON
That’s the only category the Rockets are winning, with a differential of +15 through four games. Everything else is getting matched by Portland, as we discussed above. Houston’s three-point shooting and ability to get to the line might come up again as strengths in the next round were they able to win three straight to survive the Portland matchup. In THIS series, rebounding is their only strength to date.
Game Five Vegas Line: Houston by 5.5, total of 213.5
The market is still giving Houston credit for being the superior team in the regular season. They’ve been favored in this 5-6 range at home, while Portland is only favored by 3 at home. Maybe that’s a hint that good things are to come for the Rockets. But, the market has been notoriously stubborn (particularly in the postseason) about recognizing who the “superior” team really is in a matchup. March Madness was a reminder of that…as was the Super Bowl. Heck, this whole first round has been about underdogs cashing tickets.
JIM HURLEY knows whether or not the early dog trend is about to turnaround. That will be a factor in all parts of Wednesday’s NBA PARLAY. Get the best from this game, Brooklyn/Toronto, and Dallas/San Antonio here at the website during the day. You can always purchase our BEST BETS with your credit card here at the website. If you have any questions, call us in the office at 1-800-323-4453. Be sure to ask about this year’s TRIPLE CROWN EXTRAVANGANZA in horse racing that begins this Saturday with THE KENTUCKY DERBY.
Back with you Thursday for Game Six of the Indiana/Atlanta series. Will a #1 seed fall by the wayside that quickly?! So many huge stories going on simultaneously in the playoffs! Friday will probably have us looking at Game Six of Toronto/Brooklyn. Saturday and Sunday will be for Game Sevens if any series goes the distance.
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