[The Waiting Game thread will be coming soon, and tonight, timbo (secondary Lakers fan, primary Blazers fan) was gracious enough to provide us with a Game 6 preview. Though Lamar Odom probably wants a Portland win so that this series can go "seven games and eight overtimes," I think I agree with Timbo that we've had enough rest, and we'd prefer to see the Rockets, so Houston should probably be the Laker favorite tonight.]
The Lakers will probably know their 2nd Round opponent this evening, when the Portland Trailblazers visit the Houston Rockets for an all-important Game 6 of their series. The Blazers trail 3-2 and face elimination in this game, which will be shown on TNT and tips off at 6:30 Pacific Time.
As many, most, or all of you know, the Blazers are my "main team" in the NBA and I've probably seen something like 80 games by this point (catching the others on the radio). So, for what it's worth, here's one SuperFan's view of what to look for tonight.
Click on through for Timbo's detailed analysis, and then we'll see you in tonight's "Waiting Game" GameThread in just a few minutes.
1. — First off, you as Laker fans SHOULD care who wins this game. Although very evenly matched against one another, the Lakers have had a comparatively easy time against the Rockets (sweeping the season series with them, 4-0), while splitting yet again with the Blazers, who have beaten the Lakers 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9-10-11-12 times in a row in Portland. There may be nobody capable of beating the Lakers in the Western Conference this year, but if one team can do it — and are confident enough to BELIEVE they can do it — the Blazers are that team. So you are rooting for the team in white jerseys, for sure.
2. — The name is Yao Ming. He is 7'6" tall. This is not some random number on a page that the team unilaterally proclaims him to be, he is really, truly 7-and-a-half feet tall. If Yao Ming has his way inside, the Rockets will win. If the Blazers can stop Yao Ming, the game is up for grabs. If Yao finishes the half with 15 or more points, look for a Rockets victory.
3. — No Yao Ming. The Rockets lost their backup Center in this series, with Dikembe Mutombo falling to a career-ending knee injury. Consequently, Yao's minutes have escalated. In game 5, Yao played 40 minutes — which is a ton for a Center of any size, let alone one bigger than a tree and as heavy as Shaquille O'Neal... But 40 minutes on the floor means that there were 8 minutes in which he was OFF the floor, and the Rockets were forced to play without a true Center. The Blazers are a 2-Center team and this means a terrific inside mismatch for them; in game 5 the Blazers were +6 points in this short interval. Look for Greg Oden to be on the floor trying to score low. If he is successful, the Blazers' chances are greatly increased.
4. — Greg Oden. Let's talk about him. No, he's not Sam Bowie. Yes, he is a human foul machine at this point in his career. He is raw but a fairly incredible physical specimen. He scores the ball with dunks and an unseemly but generally effective baby hook. He has his best games against teams with Power Forwards playing out of position at the Center spot. He gets stripped of the ball a lot and travels a lot — but he is also fairly unstoppable when he gets the ball low. IF he stays out of foul trouble and manages to play the minutes that Yao sits on the bench, it could be decisive. Watch for that.
5. — Blazers foul trouble. Specifically, the Centers, Joel Przybilla and Greg Oden. After a Game 1 catastrophe in which they tried to play Yao with Pryz going man-to-man and playing behind him in the conventional manner (Yao 9-for-9 shooting with 24 points at halftime), the Blazers moved to aggressively fronting Yao and trying to deny him the entry pass. This inevitably entails a great deal of contact and lots of whistles. When the Blazers lose, they complain about too many whistles. When the Rockets lose, they complain about not enough whistles. This is THE ABSOLUTELY CRITICAL QUESTION of this game: will the Blazers be allowed to front Yao aggressively with their regular Centers — on the road in Houston, with the fans going nuts about the contact? The tell here will be Channing Frye, the soft, weak, chickenshit jumpshooting Power Forward who plays the 5 when Przy and Oden are both out. Nate generally pulls his regular Centers if they get 2 fouls in the first half (sometimes Pryz gets 3). If you see Channing Frye on the floor at the Center position in the first half, you know the Blazers are in foul trouble and that something has gone wrong for them. In Game 5, Frye collected a DNP-CD — and the Blazers won. The flip side: if you DON'T see Channing Frye, that's an indicator that things are going well for the Blazers.
6. — Point Guard play. The worst matchup for the Blazers is at the PG position, in which good ol' steady, stable, slow Steve Blake has to cover former University of Oregon speedburner Aaron Brooks. Brooks has absolutely roasted the Blazers in more than one game, but was contained and contested nicely in Game 5, leading to lots of missed shots. If Brooks gets to the rack unimpeded, which is another way of saying: if the Blazers are sitting Przybilla due to foul trouble — watch out, because the Rockets will have their game-winning offense in place. If Brooks gets shut down on the scoring side again, huge advantage Blazers — because the McGradyless Rockets really don't have a ton of scorers on the squad...
7. — Power Forward play. Argentine Luis Scola has taken the Blazers' 6'11" PF LaMarcus Aldridge (LMA) to school in this series. Scola has capitalized on the doubleteams on Yao, while LMA was reduced to being an ineffective jumpshooter. In Game 5, LMA suddenly remembered the thing that made the Late-Season Blazers so much better than the Early-Season Blazers — he got low and did his thing, rebounding and scoring on short, high percentage shots. Scola is the marker for the Rockets' offense — if he goes nuts, that means Houston is taking advantage of Portland's overplaying of Yao. On the other hand, if LMA looks like an All Star, that means that Portland is clicking and Houston had better watch out for the upset.
8. — Half time score. If the Lakers are a 3rd Quarter team, the Blazers are a 4th Quarter team. Part of this relates to the way Nate substitutes in the first half, ultra-cautiously pulling people with 2 fouls. Part of this relates to the Blazers' superstar, The Natural, Brandon Roy, who becomes a Point Guard in the last 6 minutes and who paces himself throughout the game and saves his energy for the final onslaught. When the Blazers lose, they are very often down by a substantial sum at halftime. Against the Rockets, the critical margin would seem to be 15, and the danger line would seem to be 10. If the Blazers are behind by single digits at the half, they have Houston about where they want them; if Houston has a big double digit lead, look out. The Blazers have squandered one significant 4th Quarter lead in this series, but they are money in the 4th Quarter. If they start the 4th tied, they will win this game — quote me.
I'm sure I'm overlooking something, but that's the gist of it. Crazy Ron from Sactoe will take his share of shots, making some, missing others. Travis Outlaw of the Blazers will elevate and shoot, making some, missing others. Look for Nate to start Rudy Fernandez at the 3 (wiry defensive specialist Nic Batum has nobody to guard in this series) and Blazer 3 pointers will probably be the difference in the game — if they fall, Blazers win. If they clang out, Rockets win.
Rockets probably about a 55% favorite to win tonight, but with 2 losses in Houston by a total of 4 points, don't think for a minute that the Blazers see this as an insurmountable task the way that Utah saw a visit to Staples...