Round 1 Riot: Portland (4) vs Houston (5)
Stick any two teams in a playoff series this season and it will feel glorious. Stick two well-matched teams with star power, stunning talents, opposing strengths, and raucous arenas in a playoff series and the glory has no bounds. Such is the situation with the West's 4-5 battle between Portland and Houston.
Reason to Watch
Ron Artest in the Rose Garden. Portland's home arena has been among the most boisterous this season, turning out famished crowds thoroughly enjoying everything about the New Blazers. Ron-Ron is known to make enemies on the road. Ron-Ron will be checking Portland's golden boy, Brandon Roy. Ron-Ron will be physical, he will talk (and talk and talk) and he will most certainly play to the crowd. Roy won't back down (ask Paul Pierce), which will only incense Ron-Ron even more, which will only incense the Rose Garden even more.
Ron might have more enemies in Detroit and Salt Lake City, but I have a feeling the boos will get awful lusty in Rip City too.
How Portland Can Win
The Blazers have a murderous offense, with loads of scoring options all over the place. This offense needs to hum for the Blazers to succeed because, while Houston's offense is itself quite pedestrian, the Rockets will make things more difficult than Portland would like. Roy and fellow megalith LaMarcus Aldridge must overcome and score efficiently if Portland wants to walk away victorious.
How Houston Can Win
Stop Roy and Aldridge, and you stop the Blazers. In theory, at least. Artest has played Roy well in the Blazer's short career; the players that bother Ron-Ron most are the super quick, and Roy (for all his wondrous gifts) is not one of these players. Aldridge has superior length and quickness in his match-up with Luis Scola. But Chuck Hayes is a defensive monster, and Rick Adelman isn't afraid to sacrifice a bit of offense to cool off an imposing post-extended scorer. Carl Landry could also get work on Aldridge, and Shane Battier can help with Roy. This is less optimal, as Landry isn't nasty as Hayes and Battier works best against shooters, not slashers. But having those options is a boon, not a bane. It's up to Adelman to figure out how to use them properly.
Video Clip to Get You Pumped
This happened ages ago -- November 6 -- but won't soon be forgotten in Portland ... or Houston. This finish was one of several that gave Roy his budding reputation as one of the game's best closers. I don't know if the concept of "the closer" makes any rational sense (no offense, Kyra). But I do know Roy has onions and daggers in his napsack.
Stud of the Series
Scola. This is a bit of a limb, because Yao Ming, Roy, Aldridge and Artest will likely take bigger roles on their way toward dominating or being dominated. But you can see those four stars playing to stalemate while someone else sneaks in for major impact. It could be Battier, or Travis Outlaw. It could be Aaron Brooks, or Steve Blake. It could be Joel Przybilla, Greg Oden, Landry or Von Wafer, Rudy Fernandez or Kyle Lowry.
But my choice is Scola. He's had a magnificent run to end the season, playing beautiful offensive basketball while providing exactly the support Yao needs under the rim on both ends. Imagine Scola played for the Spurs -- they might be spoken of in the same breath as the Lakers! Scola is a real spark on this team, and he's not the sort of player that's going to be bothered by the high stakes or the imposing-yet-permeable defensive of Portland's bigs. I suspect he'll do well.
Ron-Ron's pride. As we saw in the last two Lakers-Rockets games, Artest tends to puff himself up for big showdowns. Sometimes, as with the 2006 playoff series against San Antonio, it works beautifully -- it galvanizes the team, transforms Ron from monstrous to Monster and puts the fear of Hell into opponents. Sometimes, as with (yes) the 2006 playoff series against San Antonio, it bites Ron in the (tail). In said 2006 series, Ron jacked Manu Ginobili in the halfcourt and found himself suspended for an obviously critical game. The Rockets can ill afford a Ron-Ron suspension -- he's too valuable. Of course, the same imbalance that makes him a liability makes him a player who can singularly turn this Rockets team into something great.
Portland: Watson, Jones, Brinson.
Houston: Ziller, Moore, Pollakoff, Steinmetz.
I chose Houston with absolutely zero conviction. I am of the strong belief this series will go a full seven games; if Stern expanded the first round to a best-of-99 format, I bet this would go 99. (Wouldn't that be something, though? "Portland takes the series lead with a pivotal win in Game 67. Teams that win Game 67 have won 55% of first-round series since the league moved to a best-of-99 format.")
The logic which led to my choice is this: Ron Artest could stop Brandon Roy. The Rockets front line could stop LaMarcus Aldridge. No player on the Blazers roster can dream of shutting down Yao Ming.
... Well, maybe in the storybook there's one fellow who could vanquish the dragon.