Tonight, there will be offense. There will be points. There will be Sausage McMuffins With Egg. But what happens if the Blazers score 200? Does everyone get a free dinner at El Gaucho, or go home with the deed to a McDonald’s franchise? Time to read the fine print, Blazer fans, because the visiting Houston Rockets (3-1) might be a young money championship contender, but in giving up 137 points to the Clippers at the Staples Center on Monday, the Rockets’ defense looked as old as the ABA circa 1975. Actually, that might be unfair; a coked out ABA squad would have at least played with more defensive energy than the Rockets showed in L.A.
When Daryl Morey put everything into acquiring Dwight Howard over the summer, he did so knowing he needed to protect his defensively challenged young perimeter players with the league’s premier rim-protecting anchor at the back line. Even throughout Howard’s much-maligned season with the Lakers, his defensive metrics remained at an elite level. So far this season, Howard has looked physically rejuvenated from the ailments that plagued him last season, and comes in averaging 14.5 points, 15 rebounds, and 1.5 blocks per game. Robin Lopez will likely match up against Howard for most of the game, but because Howard is not as effective or frequently used as a post-up player in isolation, Portland will need strong team defense with smart help and quick rotations to keep Howard from getting easy finishes at the rim in his preferred pick-and-roll actions.
The other defensive key for Portland is of course, James Harden, who enters the contest averaging 23.3 points and 4.5 assists per game. Though nominally a shooting guard, Harden is often the Rockets’ primary ball-handler, especially in important possessions and late in games. Wes Matthews should handle the Harden assignment from the start, but coach Terry Stotts may also try Batum on Harden later in the game, depending on the lineup. Whoever is guarding Harden though will need to maintain high energy to fight around or through every high ball-screen that Houston will surely run with their two stars, Howard screening for Harden. If Harden’s quickness turning the corner forces the Blazers to have to switch these or hedge too hard, that’s where Howard can find easy dunks by slipping the screen or exploiting a mismatch on a smaller defender. If the Blazers have to over rotate to provide too much help for that, Harden will find open shooters on the wings that are more than capable, such as Jeremy Lin, Chandler Parsons, Francisco Garcia, and Omri Casspi.
Yet on the other side of the ball, those same Houston perimeter players will concede a lot of open shots – and hopefully a lot points – to their Portland counterparts. With point guard Patrick Beverley out due to a torn muscle in his midsection, the Rockets have literally no one who will be able to stay in front of Damian Lillard. Harden was torched so thoroughly by J.J. Redick on Monday that Harden wound up on the bench for long stretches. At this point, feeding him to Lillard would probably violate some kind of human rights law. Therefore, coach Kevin McHale probably will start Jeremy Lin against Lillard. Lin, however, struggled mightily last night to handle Chris Paul. Paul would finish the game with 23 points and 17 assists as well as casting Lin in the lasting highlight of the contest, when Paul crossed over Lin five times en route to a lay-up. Damian Lillard is obviously not at the level of Paul as a complete point guard, but nonetheless, Lillard’s quickness, ball-handling ability, and aggressive offensive mindset should allow him to exploit Lin’s deficiency with similar nonchalance.
Lin might at least be able to create the brief illusion that he’s matching up with Lillard, but LaMarcus Aldridge may not even find a positional counterpart within the Houston roster. While the Rockets boast two quality big men in Howard and Omer Asik, they have been loath to use the two on the court together in the first few games of the season. Asik’s discomfort away from the basket causes him to stay too close to Howard on offense, making it all too easy for defenses to send quick double-teams at Howard. Hence, McHale favors smaller lineups with Omri Casspi or the tender features of Chandler Parsons in the four spot. While these lineups generate better spacing on offensive due to the two players’ shooting ability, neither can even masquerade as a post defender, which is one of the reasons why the Clippers, who like to play DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffin together, reached 137 points. Parsons trying to put his body into Griffin on the block was just the saddest CosmoGirl centerfold ever. After tonight, with the form Aldridge has been on these last couple games, Parsons may have to spend the rest of his week crying softly into his couch cushions, burning through Renee Zellweger catalog, and binging on Sausage McMuffins With Egg. Should Kevin McHale be so cruel.