Apr 23, 2014; Houston, TX, USA; Portland Trail Blazers forward LaMarcus Aldridge (12) shoots during the third quarter as Houston Rockets forward Terrence Jones (6) defends in game two during the first round of the 2014 NBA Playoffs at Toyota Center. The Trail Blazers defeated the Rockets 112-105. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

NBA Playoffs 2014: Houston-Portland Game 3 Preview

Other than fans in Rip City, I don’t think anyone foresaw Portland taking Game 1 and 2 on the road. Houston couldn’t really let that happen, could they? They couldn’t drop two games at home, right?

Well, they did, and now Houston HAS to win in Portland in Game 3 to have any chance at keeping their season alive. No NBA team has ever come back to win a series after trailing 3-0. Game 3 might as well be Game 7 for the Rockets.

In the first two games, Houston hasn’t looked that bad, and it’s not like Portland dominated. In Game 1, it took a tip-in in the last five seconds to force overtime and cap off a monster fourth quarter comeback by the Blazers. In Game 2, Houston got outplayed in the second half and wasted Dwight Howard’s 25-point first half performance.

If there is a silver lining for Rockets fans, it’s this: if LaMarcus Aldridge doesn’t have two of the best games of his career, Houston is up 2-0, heading to Portland, and the pressure is all on Portland at that point. That didn’t happen, but the series isn’t over yet. If Houston can win Game 3, this series becomes a lot closer.

Here are the keys to Game 3:

STOPPING LAMARCUS ALDRIDGE 

Houston has basically thrown the kitchen sink at Aldridge in Games 1 and 2, and Aldridge has torched the Rockets to the tune of 46 points and 43 points, respectively. Even more remarkably, Aldridge is shooting nearly 60 percent from the field on 35-of-59 shooting in the two games. That’s incredible efficiency. The way Aldridge is playing right now reminds me a lot of Dirk Nowitzki in his prime without the threes.

Aldridge is playing out of his mind right now, but Houston also isn’t doing a very good job of even making life difficult for him. Aldridge still has to make the shots, but when he is getting open looks, it’s much easier for him to knock them down. In Game 2, Aldridge went 18-of-28 from the field. Of those 18 makes, Aldridge made six contested, hand-in-his-face jumpers, two easy put-backs from offensive rebounds, and TEN uncontested, open jumpers, lay-ins, or dunks. For those keeping track at home, Aldridge scored 20 of his 43 points off open looks.

Aldridge is racking up all the points, but his scoring outburst goes hand-in-hand with Houston’s inability to guard the pick-and-roll/pop action. In the pick-and-roll/pop with Aldridge, Houston’s big guys (Asik, Howard, and Jones) hedge every screen. If the player receiving the Aldridge screen (usually Lillard, Batum, or Matthews), turns the corner on Houston’s bigs or even makes them hold for a second, it forces the player who is being screened (Harden, Beverly, Lin, and Parsons) to follow the ball-handler, which basically turns into a soft double-team and leaves Aldridge open rolling to the basket or for an open midrange jumper.

That exact scenario happened over and over and over in Game 2. Unless Kevin McHale and his staff can figure out some way to stop it, Portland is going to pick-and-roll Houston to death and a possible sweep.

WILL HOUSTON FALL FOR PORTLAND’S TRAP AGAIN?

One-on-One, Robin Lopez has no chance of stopping Dwight Howard. Rockets Head Coach Kevin McHale knows it. Trail Blazers Head Coach Terry Stotts knows it. Everyone knows it.

In Game 2, McHale wanted to take advantage of that matchup and went to Howard early in the game for Houston’s first 13 points. Howard dominating inside is fool’s gold for Houston, and Stotts figured it out.

One time in the first quarter, Portland doubled too early and Howard kicked out for an open Beverly three. You know how many other times Howard kicked out of a double to an open shooter for a made shot? Zero. Portland barely doubled Howard the rest of the game, and when they did, Howard, with too much confidence from the first half, took on the double and missed tough shots, or he turned the ball over.

In Game 2, the Rockets got the ball to Howard 25 times in post-up or isolation situations. Of those 25 touches, Howard turned the ball over six times and kicked out for one made three.

This is very problematic for Houston for two reasons:

One, the Rockets depend on penetration and ball movement to make threes. That is a huge part of their offense. If Howard is posting up, the lane is clogged, which limits driving lanes. Once Howard receives the ball, the passing lanes out of the post aren’t open because Portland is content with Howard going one-on-one with Lopez or Aldridge, so the ball stays in Howard’s hands instead of being whipped around to open shooters. There’s no flow to Houston’s offense when they’re playing through Howard.

And two, when Howard is getting 25 isolation touches, that means Harden, Parsons, and Lin don’t have the ball in their hands trying to make plays. Those three guys need the ball to create scoring options for other players and themselves, especially Harden. When Howard has the ball that much, those guys can’t get in any kind of offensive rhythm because they’re just standing out there. That leads to forcing the ball offensively as they try to get their own points. Against quality defenders like Wes Matthews and Nic Batum, that isn’t going to work and is the reason why Harden, Parsons, and Lin have struggled so much in Games 1 and 2.

FEAR THE BEARD

So far this series, when it comes to James Harden, Portland has had no reason to be afraid. As much as I think Dwight Howard getting too many touches and crowding the lane is affecting Harden, I also think Portland’s defense and how they are playing him is a huge aspect of Harden’s struggles. Yes, Harden has missed some open shots he usually makes. Those struggles can be attributed to a lack of rhythm or flow because of Howard, but the misses at the rim and in the lane are because of Portland’s pesky defense.

As I mentioned above, Matthews and Batum are good defenders and create some problems for Harden. Matthews is bigger and stronger than Harden, and he uses his physicality to body up Harden. Batum is longer than Matthews and makes it difficult for Harden to get a good look over Batum’s outstretched arms. Matthews and Batum are really making it difficult on Harden right now.

As a team, though, the Blazers are doing a great job stopping Harden’s go-to move, the euro-step. Harden is the best in the league with the euro-step because he dips the ball so low and then elevates over the defender to finish at the rim. It’s basically impossible to stop with one guy. Every time Harden drives and starts to make that euro-step move, Portland is bring an extra defender(s) to contest Harden’s shot. In order for the defender to get their in time, Batum and Matthews have to keep Harden in front and make him elevate straight up instead of toward the rim. Wright and Thomas Robinson have made some monster blocks on this play, and Aldridge and Lopez are forcing Harden to shoot over them. It’s not a perfect defensive scheme, but it’s done the trick so far.

If Harden struggles again in Game 3, Portland will be up 3-0 and getting their brooms ready.

Tags: 2014 NBA Playoffs Houston Rockets NBA Portland Trail Blazers

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