OVERVIEW: The Blazers are giddy about their 10-1 finish to the regular season, the way they nabbed home-court advantage in this round on the final night, and the franchise's return to the postseason after a five-year absence. The Rockets rallied after losing Tracy McGrady in early February, going 22-8 down the stretch and remaining in contention for the No. 2 seed in the West until the last day of the season. Houston has not advanced in the playoffs since reaching the Western Conference finals in 1996-97.
THREE THINGS TO WATCH
1. The Yao factor. Defending Yao Ming is a tall order for every Houston opponent, but Blazers coach Nate McMillan and his staff surely have gone to school on clubs that have had success lately fronting the 7-foot-6 center. It worked wonders for Dallas on Wednesday: After Yao scored 19 points in the first half, he had just four more the rest of the way while coping with Brandon Bass and Ryan Hollins in his lap. "We really struggled all season against the fronts,'' Yao said afterward. "That's a ball movement problem, and also I didn't hold my post [position] well.'' Portland already has a head start with its game plan, having limited Yao to 16.3 points (on 42.1 percent shooting) in three meetings this season.
2. Deep impact. Get ready to count by threes in this one. Houston jacked up 20.2 three-point attempts per game, sixth most in the NBA. Meanwhile, Portland set a franchise record for three-pointers made and was fourth in the league in accuracy (38.3 percent). For the Blazers, it's more of a new wrinkle, with a handful of players setting personal highs for attempts and makes, and Rudy Fernandez ranking among the deepest-threat rookies ever. "Our guys are shooting the ball and that allows Brandon [Roy] and LaMarcus [Aldridge] and Greg [Oden] to play with single coverage,'' McMillan told reporters. "To keep teams honest, you've got to have shooters.''
3. The part of Tracy McGrady will be played by Brandon Roy. What a matchup this would have been had T-Mac been healthy, facing a similar slashing, multithreat All-Star shooting guard, only younger and experiencing his first postseason, while McGrady sought his first postseason-series victory. We'll have to settle for Roy and his new counterpart as Houston's ball dominator, Ron Artest. He's effective but without style points.
UNDER THE RADAR: Home-court advantage in the NBA playoffs is very real. Since 1984, 78.2 percent of first-round series have been won by the teams hosting Game 1. But perception is part of that reality, too, and the Blazers are convinced that they're a better team on their own court, where their 34 victories were the most (by four) of any Portland club since the Rose Garden opened in 1995. The Rockets, meanwhile, know they have won 10 of their last 11 against Portland, and 17 of 21 dating to 2003, when the teams meet in Houston. They lost despite holding the home-court edge against Utah the past two postseasons, and now they don't have it at all.
PREDICTION:Blazers in 6. People can talk all they want about Portland's youth and inexperience, but that team grew up a lot over the course of this season. The Rockets play defense in postseason-worthy fashion, but Artest's shot selection can be consternating and the Blazers have the size and numbers to harass Yao.
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