[NB: I haven’t had a chance to watch the Clippers game yet, so this preview doesn’t touch on it]In the UK tonight is Guy Fawkes Night, a celebration of the day 410 years ago when the eponymous Fawkes was apprehended while trying to blow up the Houses of Parliament. It is celebrated by building an effigy of Fawkes upon a bonfire, setting off fireworks, and generally making merry on a cool November evening. In Portland it will undoubtedly be a cool evening and there will be a fire Blazing, but it remains to be seen whether the Rockets will be setting off fireworks during the game or making merry once proceedings are through. (That fulfils my tortuously crowbarred-in metaphor quota for the post).Form:This is the fourth game in five nights for the Rockets, in a road-trip that has seen them traverse most of the Western half of the country. While marginally less severe than the previous back-to-back against Utah in terms of travel time and altitude, Portland is not an ideal destination to get to for a one day stay, and there will almost certainly be residual effects of the previous games in players’ legs. Last season the team came through remarkably unscathed by injury, but already this year the loss of Patrick Beverley and the lack of Omri Casspi against Utah has been felt. Nights like this after weeks like the last one are a recipe for adding to that, even this early in the season – weary players aren’t as good at getting out of the way of stray limbs and don’t react as well to incoming pain. So it will be critical for the Rockets to avoid putting any more players in suits.The Portland Trailblazers have quietly got off to a strong start to the season, with good wins against the Spurs and in the altitude of Denver (they also lost to a surprisingly good Suns team). LaMarcus Aldridge has been killing it from the midrange and Damien Lillard is continuing where he left off last season. In addition, they will be rested having not played since Saturday, and are missing only end of the bench players Joel Freeland and Earl Watson.On Offence:
- For all Damien Lillard’s prodigious offensive talent, he has not been a particularly great defensively so far in his young career. This will be a key point of attack, especially if Lin and Howard/Asik can draw the effective but leaden-footed Robin Lopez away from the basket in the pick and roll.
- Portland only really has three capable wings in their rotation at the moment – Matthews, Batum and Wright. This means they may be vulnerable to McHale going small – unless he wants to tire out his entire wing rotation at once, Coach Stotts will be forced to counter by playing Mo Williams and Lillard alongside each other. Neither are great defenders and should allow the Rockets’ driving guards to have a field day.
- Rockets in the paint must keep an eye out for Batum at all times, especially when out on the break. He loves the chase-down block and will frequently appear from nowhere to swat the ball away. This can be demoralising if it happens often enough.
- How does you defend against LaMarcus Aldridge? His sublime mid-range game and well-defined set of post-moves make him one of the toughest covers at a position full of tough covers. The task will likely fall to Howard most of the time (it would take a brave coach to give the assignment to Casspi), and a lot will come down to how comfortable Dwight will be stepping away from the basket to contest. In a twin-towers line up one would hope that he will trust Asik enough to venture forth from the paint, but the duo do have a tendency to end up losing a big man who drifts out towards the three point line, particularly in possessions with a lot of motion.
- Lillard is a player it would be nice to have Patrick Beverley around for. Especially early in the year, Lin struggled to deal with Lillard’s quickness and at the time unknown ability to shoot the three. A year older and wiser, we’ll have to see if Lin has improved enough to stay in front of his man.
Rotation Spotlight:Wesley Matthews (6’5″ SG, Wisconsin)Matthews is a perfect shooting guard in today’s NBA. He thrives in a dying position because unlike his illustrious predecessors he does not need or demand the ball. But when you give it to him, he can and will score (to the tune of 15.3 points-per-36, according to basketball-reference.com). Add his solid defensive reputation and you have a résumé that would make him a welcome fit on pretty much every team in the league. Not bad for an undrafted player! His only weakness is his poor finishing near the basket – this shot chart is illustrative of his general tendencies, even if it’s a little too early in the season to be completely accurate: