The 2014 NBA Playoff are set to get underway this weekend, with the No. 4 Houston Rockets taking on the No. 5 Portland Trail Blazers in perhaps the most anticipated series in this year’s postseason.
The first round series is expected to be one of the more contentious this year, namely due to both squads tireless offenses and several superstar pairings.
Houston won the regular season series 3-1 by an average of 11 points per win. In Portland’s sole victory, star power forward LaMarcus Aldridge carried the Blazers with 31 points and 25 rebounds while his teammates struggled with 14 turnovers and 29 percent shooting from three.
The teams have met three previous times in the postseason, all in the first round, and Houston has won all three including the most recent 2009 series 4-2. However, both teams will send out completely revamped squads.
Below are key matchups to watch as the series unfolds.
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Dwight Howard vs. Robin Lopez
Tied for fourth in the NBA in with 47 double-doubles, Howard returned to the court last weekend after missing 11 of Houston’s last 16 games with an ankle injury. Howard played limited minutes in the last three games of the season but did light up San Antonio for 20-17, and he’s still the player expected to carry the Rockets to a title in his first season in Houston.
Lopez clearly has the toughest defensive matchup of the series in trying to at least limit the 6-foot-11 Howard’s production in the paint and on the boards. Lopez was first on his team in blocks and second in rebounds and is one of four Blazers to play every game this season.
Damian Lillard vs. Patrick Beverley
Beverley has battled a torn meniscus injury all season, and his health going forward will be the biggest factor in how well Houston can defend Lillard and the three-point line.
Lillard poses a threat both inside and outside, and if he can attack the basket and get Howard or Beverley in foul trouble early, Portland has an excellent chance of moving on.
James Harden vs. Wesley Matthews
Harden finished fifth in the league in scoring for a second straight year at 25.4 points per game and actually improved his overall shooting percentage while happily deferring some of the offensive load to Howard. He’s the most versatile scorer in the series, but Harden will also be asked to help out against Lilllard and Matthews on the other end.
Matthews is a career 39 percent shooter from three and he averaged 20.3 points in four games against Houston this season.
Chandler Parsons vs. Nicolas Batum
The Rockets third-leading scorer at 16.6 points per game, Parsons sat out the regular season finale to rest for the playoffs. Batum pulled down 7.5 rebounds per game and, along with Lopez and Aldridge, is the main reason Portland was first in the league in rebounding. Batum’s long wingspan could create lots of second-chance opportunities and could give Parsons fits on defense.
LaMarcus Aldridge vs. Terrence Jones
Jones has the most unenviable task of any Houston starter as he tries to contain Aldridge, who led the Blazers with career-highs in points (23.2) and rebounds (11.1). Howard or Harden could slide over to help unless they’re wary of fouls, meaning Jones might have to play Aldridge straight up or make him hustle on the defensive end.
Mo Williams vs. Jeremy Lin
The first two guards off the bench for both teams will play a major role. Lin now looks like the same player that started the season hot after recovering from a back injury. In the final month of the regular season, Lin shot 47.4 percent from three-point range and the Rockets will need his extra scoring punch throughout this series.
Williams is a 10-year veteran who’s averaged 12.9 points in 41 career playoff games and could give Lin trouble on defense. Portland’s C.J. McCollum could also be a huge factor, shooting 37.5 percent from deep during the regular season.
Thomas Robinson vs. Omer Asik
Foul trouble to either Howard or Aldridge could mean big minutes from Asik or Robinson. Asik began the season angered by his backseat role to Howard in the offense, but he has a chance to be Houston’s difference in the series as Portland’s back-up centers Meyers Leonard and Joel Freeland have proven far too inconsistent.
Robinson hasn’t been asked to score much at all, averaging 4.8 points, but he can make his presence best felt on the glass.
Game One takes place at 9:30 p.m. Sunday in Houston at the Toyota Center, and the full schedule of the series can be viewed here.
Betting Odds: Houston -5 in Game One
Prediction: The series will go six games with Houston winning 4-2