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Rockets Hound Blazers Stars

Apr 25, 2009 – 12:39 AM
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Matt Moore

Matt Moore %BloggerTitle%

The big question for the Houston Rockets as the playoffs began was if they would have a scorer that could take over a game the same way Portland has Brandon Roy.

It turns out you don't really need that if you hold the other team's pair of stars (Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge) to 12 of 33 shooting and your team takes advantages of the opportunities provided by a shady defense.

The result was an 86-83 victory for the Rockets that gave them a 2-1 advantage in their series. This one was kind of a chessmatch. Try and keep up.

Some series are decided by talent. In others, a complex system of unlikely matchups is the determining factor. But sometimes, you find a series that is so evenly matched, it comes down to adjustments and the ability for good players to hit big shots. That's what this series is coming down to more and more.

In Game 2, the Rockets tried to build on their Game 1 domination of Portland in the post by Yao Ming. When the Blazers countered with the front-and-double, the Rockets were frustrated, stymied, and driven to the perimeter. They were forced into three point attempts instead of working towards them, and their other shots were last options when Ming was unavailable due to defense or foul trouble. In Game 3, the Rockets responded in the first half with adjustments, and it led to a 47-38 advantage at the half.

Key among these was something that will get lost in the box score. Yao Ming had only 7 points on 2-7 shooting. The immediate reaction to this is that the Rockets were lucky to win without significant contribution from Ming. However, the truth of the matter is that the lack of emphasis on Yao was both a solution that helped them win tonight, but a long term tactic that may help them down the line.

After their frustrations in Game 2, the Rockets still looked to Ming first. But when the Blazers brought the double and put his man in front (and out of position to the front side), the Rockets responded by immediately pushing the ball to Luis Scola at around 18 feet. Scola was confident and took what the defense gave him. If the lane was open, he attacked. If not, he knocked down the 17 footer. That helped Scola to lead the Rockets with 19 points. They repeated this system when Ming was on the bench, only when the attention was driven to Scola or the perimeter, it was Carl Landry knocking down jumpers.

This tactic not only worked tonight in creating open looks for the Rockets on a night where Ron Artest and Ming had as many points as Shane Battier by himself, but creates a dilemma for the Blazers in Game 4. If they adjust to defend the front side from the power forwards, they won't have the luxury of doubling Ming. There's only so many bodies to go around. Double-teaming the post is a luxury afforded by a confidence in the inability of the remaining interior players to knock down shots. If you take that luxury away, you're right back where you started.

But as you may notice from the final differential, it wasn't all roses and accolades for the Rockets. The Blazers had quite a few things go their way which provide hope for Game 4. Not the least of these is the fact that Greg Oden is gaining more and more confidence against Ming. He picked up two first half fouls against Ming, and his team was +8 with him on the floor. He even dropped a few hammer dunks on the Dynasty in the third quarter. Even if Oden isn't able to get his offense going, if he can just keep Ming from dominating, the Blazers are back to a simple matchup that's in their favor. Their athleticism versus Houston's acumen. And that's a matchup they feel they can win.

Perhaps the biggest advantage an Oden arrival would provide is in an area where the Blazers are getting killed. Double teams.

For the Blazers, the double team is a desperation move. They're having trouble, as they have all year, with sticking their man, so they're trying to force bad possessions with double teams. Unfortunately, the Rockets have responded with crisp passing. All five Rockets on the floor at any given moment can pass the ball well. Ron Artest may choose not to, but they are capable of it. This was evident in the second when the Blazers trapped Artest in the right corner, only to have him find Scola who found Landry for an easy dunk. On the other end, the Rockets have a luxury in their defensive fundamentals that allow them to provide doubles, particularly on Brandon Roy.

Coming into the season, a big question for the Rockets was how Artest and Battier would work on the floor together. Roy gives them a perfect opportunity to double with the two of them. And the result was a terrible night for Roy shooting along with 4 turnovers. As great as Roy is, if you're going to assume Ming can be solved with a double, Brandon Roy can be limited with a double from those two great defenders.

The Blazers were still in this late, however, as Rudy Fernandez (17 points on 6-9 shooting) was brilliant. Steve Blake however, was not, though he did hit a late three to bring them within range with 3 seconds left. But the one he air balled seconds earlier was rather problematic, especially down three with nine seconds left to set a play. He finished with a good stat line, but the Rockets front court provided much more of a spark.

Going into Game 4, we should expect a classic. It's become clear that this series will rest on Houston's ability to defend Brandon Roy, and the performance of the power forwards. However, perhaps more important is the ability for either side to put together a total team effort. When the Rockets are in sync, they're able to use a cohesive team effort to battle anything. Likewise, when the Blazers are playing in the flow of their system, they can overwhelm anyone with talent. Portland needs to avoid the temptation to lean on Roy too much and instead let their talent take them places.

We're at a pivot point in the series. The Rockets front court has played much better than expected (particularly Aaron brooks and Von Wafer). The Portland front court with Oden is playing better than expected. Ming has one dominant performance, Roy has one dominant performance. The Xs and Os are going to be the deciding factor in this one, and right now, it's way, way too close to call. But you can call it fun.
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