The Houston Rockets are missing Dwight Howard, but he’ll be back. The Portland Trail Blazers are without Wesley Matthews, injured for the rest of this season. Does that even the playing field?
The Rockets and Blazers just might be headed towards another playoff encounter. Right now they’re at third and fourth in the West which means avoiding each other, but things can change and aren’t that locked up in the West, especially with the Spurs having their usual Spring awakening.
The teams have split their two meetings this season: The Rockets winning 110-95 back in December, the Blazers 109-98 in February. Both games were in Houston, and this third is the final game between two teams that played in the first round of the playoffs last season. The Blazers came out on top.
James Harden seems to be the name on everyone’s lips right now with the MVP debate heating up. Harden remains a player that his final production relies quite a lot on how much credit he gets from referees as he uses his technique of arm flailing and crashing into bodies, but it’s worked well so far, averaging 27.1 points, 7.1 assists and 5.8 rebounds per year.
The most important thing are the Rockets not collapsing without Howard. Harden isn’t great every time. In fact, there are a lot of weak spots in his MVP campaign, but he’s been getting help from a lot of different players each night. Corey Brewer has had a few big games in the last six weeks. Terrence Jones has been fantastic since coming back from injury. Josh Smith is happy with his role, for now. The Rockets aren’t flashy except for Harden, but they’re a team that’s doing pretty well in following the Morey plan.
The Blazers, even with the Rockets at 20 losses (but playing two games less), don’t have an MVP contender. LaMarcus Aldridge (23.2 points, 10.5 rebounds) and Damian Lillard (21.4 points, 6.2 assists) are great players, but it’s more about being a two-headed monster than claiming individual awards. Without Wesley Matthews, both of them need others to chip in more than ever.
The key here is the trio of Afflalo, Batum and McCollum. Afflalo scored 14 points in the first game without Matthews but the Blazers lost to the Timberwolves. Batum has been playing well over the last three games, averaging 17.3 points, possibly his best three-game stretch this season. McCollum has been one huge disappointment since being drafted, but the Blazers need him to step up if their hopes of repeating and exceeding last year’s conference semifinal.
The Rockets and the Blazers are two teams rising at about the same time in the changing Western conference in terms of old and new powers rising and falling. Both teams are considered as second tier contenders. Good teams, but a long shot. They’ve had their moments of above and below that expectation this season. Claiming the season series won’t make them win the West, but gaining a possible advantage and tie breaker in a very plausible playoff encounter is something worth fighting for.