PORTLAND — LaMarcus Aldridge has grabbed all of the headlines nationally and locally and deservedly so.
He’s only scored 89 points to lead the Portland Trail Blazers to a 2-0 series advantage in their first round Western Conference playoff series against the Houston Rockets.
Aldridge’s has been nothing short of legendary, but something of importance that’s been equally as valuable to the Blazers’ first two wins has been the play of the defense.
“To win in the playoffs, you’ve got to have both. You’ve got to have defense, you’ve got to have offense,” said Blazers coach Terry Stotts on an off-day before the Blazers host the Rockets for Game 3 on Friday at the Moda Center. “We’ve been fortunate to have them both these first two games.”
The Rockets — who finished fourth in the NBA in offensive efficiency, measured in points per 100 possessions — are scoring below the league average in the first two playoffs games according to NBA.com.
James Harden has been taking a beating nationally and in the Houston media about his rough, 14-for-47 start to the series from the field in the first two games. Dwight Howard is averaging 29.5 points per game and 14.5 rebounds on 51 percent shooting.
Portland attacked Harden in Game 1 with Wesley Matthews in the post, but it’s been his normally elite offense that’s been scratching some heads.
The Blazers have had him guarded mostly by Matthews, but Nicolas Batum has been on him for extended stretches, like at the end of Portland’s overtime win in Game 1.
The Blazers defense was at a top-10 level after the All-Star break and it’s been Houston’s team that’s struggled to stop anything Portland has wanted to do offensively.
Stotts has been pleased with his team’s pick and roll defense against Harden.
“That’s a credit to not only the guys guarding him but the guy guarding the screener as well,” Stotts said.
One of the best examples of this pick and roll defense was Houston’s final play of Game 1 in overtime when Joel Freeland — guarding the screener Terrence Jones — and Batum worked together to force Harden into a tough midrange two that he missed after a failed series of fakes.
Although Portland closed well defensively to end the season, the Blazers solid play against Houston isn’t as simple as a trend carrying over.
“You expect to be a better defensive team in the playoffs because of the focus and alertness and preparation,” Stotts said. “That being said, you’re also playing against better teams so it needs to be there. Everybody is really locked in on their assignments and on the game plan.”
A major part of the game plan against Houston was to limit transition opportunities for the Rockets who were third in the league in fast break points. The Rockets have averaged 16.5 fast break points over two games compared to their season average of 18.5, but Stotts still thinks they can improve.
As they prepare to take the court in front of what is sure to be a wild atmosphere crowd at the Moda Center, Stotts said that Batum reminded the Blazers of a lesson he learned first hand in the playoffs.
“I know Nic was talking about when they played Phoenix (2010) and went down there and got a split and then came back and lost Game 3. There’s enough examples out there that just because you come home that doesn’t guarantee you anything.”
Although there are no guarantees, the Blazers are presented with their biggest opportunity to date this season with a chance to take a commanding 3-0 series lead in the best of seven series.