Preview 23-19 Houston at 25-17 Portland

At the beginning of the year some people were talking Title aspirations for Houston. Then they got struck with a multitude of injuries including to McGrady and Ming. Additionally, Steve Francis is out "indefinitely" and very few players have even made it to 30 games this year. As their record reached depths no Rocket fan anticipated there was talk in some quarters that the McGrady-Ming experiment had failed. Criticisms were leveled at Adelman for his coaching.

From where I sit, those criticisms make little sense. Adelman was a tremendous coach in Portland and his departure hurt the team as much as the departure of some of their more talented players. He did a phenomenal job in Sacramento and they made a huge mistake in letting him go. And he is doing another excellent job in Houston, guiding a variety of line-ups to where they position to make a run at the playoffs in the second half of the season assuming they can get healthy.

McGrady has been playing very well off the bench the last few games as he recovers from yet another injury. Houston is hot, having won their last three. They are also catching Portland at the right time. Portland's home court advantage is all but negated by the road trip hangover. Typically teams coming back from long road trips struggle in their first game back. Additionally, Portland will be on short rest, just one day, which is unusual.

Portland will be coming back home from a long road trip, still tired, and perhaps too buoyed by their successes on the road. It will be interesting to see if they come out with fire in their eyes or if they are in coasting mode. On the one hand they have had numerous examples of great leadership. Roy in particular is known for telling his teammates what is expected of them. The team has become accustomed to winning. They make a point of defending the home court. They go out of their way to engage the fans.

On the other hand, they are coming off a loss where the last three quarters saw them badly outplayed by the Hornets, it gave them a losing record for the road trip, and after the game Barrett even talked about their level of exhaustion.

In other words, Houston is the odds on favorite to win this game, even though it is in Portland. In different circumstances I would give Portland the edge. Though Ming does a great job of shutting down the paint, that impacts Portland far less than it does most teams due to their habit of bombing away from mid and long range. The Blazers are quite content to pull up for 15 footers. In fact, this might be a good game for Roy to get off a few of those foul-line extended elbow jumpers he took so often last year but that have fallen by the wayside this year. Both Aldridge and Frye are capable of hitting the top of the key 18 foot jump shot to pull out their defenders a bit and of course Jones, Webster and Blake can all strike from anywhere on the court.

With that said, tired legs make it hard to go after the rebounds aggressively and Houston is pretty solid on the boards. Look for a poor shooting night from Portland to be compounded by rebounding woes and Houston will sneak out a road win.

Portland wins if they shoot 48% or better and manage to stay within about 4 or 5 rebounds of Houston. This is yet another gut-check game for Portland. Will they rise up and defend their home court? Or will they start sliding back towards their probably eventual end at about .500 for the season? Despite their excellent start it would not be hugely surprising to see the Blazers go something like 20-20 the rest of the way...which would still leave them 45-37, a nice 13 game jump from last year. If they are an 8 games over .500 team, which seems not too far off given their strengths and weaknesses, we can expect to start seeing them drop a few games they were winning earlier.

In the classic tradition of "Let's hedge our bets"...if the Blazers are the 50-32 or better team I did not expect but that their 25-16 record after 41 games represents then this is a game they need to win despite the obstacles. I would not be surprised to see the Blazers show their heart and win this but I expect a Rockets victory, probably in the 8 - 12 point range.

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