Matchup: No. 4 Houston Rockets (54-28) vs. No. 5 Portland Trail Blazers (54-28)
Season Series: Rockets won 3-1
Efficiency Rankings: Houston (4th offense, 12th defense), Portland (5th offense, 16th defense)
Although most of the attention during the West's first round will likely go to the Clippers-Warriors series for its combination of star power and bad blood, Rockets-Blazers could very well wind up being just as entertaining. Both teams won 54 games, and their point differentials are separated by a smaller margin (Houston edges Portland +4.7 to +4) than those of the other seven series. Both teams also have two All-Stars (the Rockets' James Harden and Dwight Howard vs. the Blazers' LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard), top-five offenses, top-10 paces of play and top-three units in three-pointers attempted.
The average score of their four regular-season games was 116-110 Houston, with the Rockets taking the series 3-1 thanks to a dramatic overtime victory in March. A number of hard-nosed competitors complement all of that potency: Role players like Rockets point guard Patrick Beverley, Blazers shooting guard Wesley Matthews and Portland center Robin Lopez might be overmatched by their All-Star counterparts, but they will all go down swinging games after game.
The Case For The Rockets
Houston will look at the results from this season and wonder whether the Blazers are equipped to stop, or even slow down, Harden and Howard. The former averaged 30.3 points, 7.3 rebounds and 5.3 assists against the Blazers, while the latter punished Portland to the tune of 25.5 points and 13.5 rebounds. Harden posted those numbers against various defenders, and he can expect to see both Matthews and Nicolas Batum in this series. Howard, however, surely realizes that the Blazers are a few early fouls for Lopez away from being up a creek when it comes to their interior defense.
Conversely, the Rockets will like their chances of slowing Lillard, thanks to Beverley, who lives for that type of challenge. Portland gets balanced offensive contributions from all five starters and sixth man Mo Williams, but they are at their best when Lillard is pumping in threes to open things up for Aldridge.
With the tertiary players fairly evenly matched, the Rockets will advance if they are able to triumph in the battle of superstars, as expected. Harden and Howard, it should be noted, enter the playoffs with something to prove: Both were bounced quickly from the 2013 postseason, and this year's playoffs are the beginning of what could be a three-to-five-year window of title contention. Now is the right time to make a big first impression.
The Case For The Blazers
Portland's path to victory starts with Aldridge, who began the season looking like an MVP candidate and ended the season by helping spark a 9-1 run. The Rockets have thrown the kitchen sink at Aldridge this year, including daring him to shot by putting Harden on him for a few possessions, and he will surely be seeing all sorts of different coverages as the series unfolds. Terrence Jones, Houston's starting power forward, is younger, smaller and not as imposing as Aldridge, who is capable of exploiting a mismatch and drawing a double team with his polished, inside-outside game. He will need lots of help.
Three other notable reasons for optimism for the Blazers: good health (the four starter besides Aldridge each played in all 82 games), major continuity and chemistry. Portland's lineup of Lillard, Matthews, Batum, Aldridge and Lopez logged 1,373 minutes this season, the second most of any five-man unit. Together, they posted an offensive rating of 111.5 and a defensive rating of 103, making for a pristine +8.5 net rating. Terry Stotts, in search of the first playoff-series victory of his head-coaching career, will ride that group as hard as he can.
Turnovers. Although these squads are similar in a number of ways, they fit distinctly different profiles when it comes to turnovers. The Blazers rank No. 3 in turnover percentage and No. 30 in opponent turnover percentage, meaning they protect the ball well on offense and play very conservatively on defense. The Rockets, on the other hand, rank No. 29 in turnover percentage and No. 28 in opponent turnover percentage, meaning they can be quite careless on offense while not really generating many free possessions on the other end.
If Houston is able to clean up its offensive act against Portland's non-pressure defense, its other advantages (Howard's presence, leading the league in fouls drawn, fast break points) should carry the day. If Houston can't tighten things up, it will open the door for Portland. On the other hand, the Blazers need to maintain their ball security and avoid careless play: Lillard, Batum and Williams have been the most notorious culprits in that regard this season.
Rockets in six. Elite offense requires success behind the arc, at the rim and at the foul line, and the Rockets cover all of those bases better than the Blazers. During the postseason chess match, Houston looks to possess a deeper pool of offensive counters, and its primary options -- Harden and Howard -- should be the two best players on the court. Throw in Portland's defense -- which is inconsistent overall and has struggled to slow the Rockets' stars -- and Houston's home-court advantage, and the Rockets should emerge from a very competitive series.