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Article written by Zach Zola (@ZachZola1)

So far, so good.

Life has been sweet for the Rockets (42-24) in the bubble through two games, collecting impressive clutch wins over the high scoring Mavericks and the league leading Bucks.

Tonight, they will look to improve their record in a game against the Portland Trail Blazers (30-38). The Trail Blazers, one of six Western Conference teams invited to fight for the 8 seed, are sure to come out playing aggressive – every victory for them means one step closer to securing a spot in the playoffs.

The Trail Blazers are without 3+D specialists Trevor Ariza and Rodney Hood (two players who didn’t travel to the bubble), while Eric Gordon remains out for the Rockets with injury.

Let’s take a look at some keys to tonight’s game:

1) Contain Nurkic

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This will likely be a common point to highlight in all games. I may as well have just written: “Contain opposing team’s center”.

Nurkic in particular, though, is someone that the Rockets will really have to game plan for. After sitting out the entire season due to a broken leg, the 7 footer has not lost a step in his return to basketball.

In two bubble games, Nurkic is averaging 24p/9r/5a, to go along with 2 steals and a ridiculous 3.5 blocks per game. He is big, active on the glass, and can score in a multitude of ways. In other words, a problem.

One area in which Nurkic has thrived is in the post. While a very small sample size, Nurkic – in his two games – leads the league in post up attempts at 5.5 per game. He is shooting 55% on these attempts, which is one of the highest rates in the league.

This poses a potential threat for the Rockets. I wrote about it more in detail here, but the Rockets’ small ball lineup gives opposing teams a lot more post up opportunities per game compared to their yearly averages. While the combined abilities of Tucker-Harden-Covington often limits this advantage (see below), an elite interior presence like Nurkic will be a more difficult matchup.

The Rockets will need to pressure Nurk and make him work on both ends of the court as much as possible in order to try and slow him down.

2) Make Open Threes

Troy Taormina – USA Today Sports

Against the Bucks, the Rockets attempted an NBA record-tying 61 three point attempts. They made 21 of them for a decent 34%, but that number should’ve been much higher.

Of their 61 attempts, 35 of them were wide open. Further, James Harden and Russell Westbrook combined for 43 potential assists during the game. In the video below, you’ll see how easily Russ creates these open shot attempts for his teammates:

When Russ drives to the rim, he brings so much attention with him. The defense collapses, leaving a Rockets player open in the corner for a 3. Every single time.

PJ just has to knock down those shots in that spot. It’s as simple as that.

By consistently hitting the open three point attempts, the Rockets can keep the defense honest. But if Jeff Green and PJ Tucker are going to shoot a combined 6-20 from three, defenses can afford to leave them open. This subsequently allows them to double team Harden – or, in some situations, Russ – every time down the floor. If, however, Tucker makes his corner 3s with any sort of regularity, the defense will have to fade out to the perimeter, allowing Russ and Harden easier lanes to the rim.

Against the high scoring Trail Blazers, the Rockets must shoot a higher percentage from three point land to avoid getting run off the court.

3) Let go of the Letdown

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This season, the Rockets have picked up quality wins over teams like the Lakers, the Clippers, the Celtics – the list goes on…

Alternatively, though, the Rockets have been blown out by the likes of the Hornets, Knicks, and Warriors (yes, this year’s Warriors) This is referred to as the “letdown game” – playing down to weaker competition after picking up a big win in a previous game.

Tonight is a prime spot for one of these letdown games. The Trail Blazers are a good team with some star power, but the Rockets should beat them most of the time. After huge wins over the Mavericks and the Bucks, though, the Rockets could easily fold to a hungry Blazers team. Especially one that will be desperate for a win after a hard fought loss to the Celtics on Sunday.

However, the Rockets are not in a position to be throwing games away due to a lack of effort. They are locked in a tight battle for playoff seeding, and need to win as many games as possible in order to ensure an ideal first/second round matchup.

It will be key for the Rockets to be aggressive from the start, rather than let the Trail Blazers dictate the flow of the game. The Rockets have been making their money defensively in the 4th quarter, but they will need to be locked in with high energy from the tip-off of tonight’s game if they want to improve their bubble record to 3-0.

Key Matchup: Russ vs Dame

I think that we are all well aware of the history between these two.

Both players are among the league’s elite, and both will look to put on a show in this primetime matchup. In their last game – back in January before small ball was instituted – the two did not disappoint.

Russ had 39 points on 16/29 from the field to go along with 10 rebounds and 6 assists, but it was not enough. The Trail Blazers ultimately won the game, led by a flawless 36/10/11 line on 52% shooting from Dame.

I won’t dive too deep into the game itself because the Rockets are such a different team now, but one thing remains clear:

Don’t let Damian Lillard get hot.

If Lillard is able to consistently get open shots and wide open lanes to the rim, he will make the Rockets pay. If, however, Russ is able to clog the passing lanes and stay aggressive on ball (like he did in OT vs the Mavericks), Dame will have a much harder time getting comfortable on offense. This could lead to turnovers and more errant shot attempts.

On offense, Westbrook will look to attack. He is not the number one scoring option for the Rockets, but his finishing ability is one of the biggest keys to making the small ball system flow. And going up against Lillard, he will almost certainly make it a priority to score.

If Westbrook does outplay Lillard, you can probably be sure of two things:

  1. The Rockets will win the game.
  2. #NBATwitter will find a way to say that Dame was better.

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