By Brad Young
**No. 4 Portland vs. No. 5 Houston**
Series Price: Portland -180 Houston +140
Series Format: 2-2-1-1-1
Skinny: Portland and Houston have very similar statistics typical of a 4-5 playoff matchup. The Blazers were 34-7 straight up at home and 20-21 on the road, while the Rockets were 33-8 in Houston and 20-21 away from home. Portland averaged 98.4 points and 43 rebounds per game, while Houston managed 99.4 ppg and 41.7 boards. Each team dished out an average of 20.3 assists per contest.
Things are so bunched up in the Western Conference that Houston fell all the way to the fifth seed on the last day of the season. The Rockets had a shot at the second seed until dropping its regular-season finale against Dallas coupled with Denver’s loss to Portland. The Rockets owned the tiebreaker over San Antonio and Portland, but now must deal with some postseason demons without homecourt advantage in the first round.
In fact, the playoff seedings in this series could very easily be swapped if Portland guard Brandon Roy didn’t hit a miraculous 30-foot prayer at the buzzer to beat Houston in overtime during a November 6th matchup. That marks the Blazers only head-to-head victory over the Rockets the previous eight meetings in this series.
Houston will be playing without superstar Tracy McGrady who is ‘out’ for the rest of the year with a knee injury. The Rockets won back-to-back championships in the mid 1990’s, but have not advanced past the first round of the playoffs since 1997. Houston has lost its last seven postseason series, tied with Denver for the longest current streak in the NBA.
Portland used to be a postseason mainstay, making the NBA Playoffs 21 consecutive seasons before failing to advance in 2004. The Blazers are now making their first postseason appearance since the 2003 campaign.
Gambling Notes: Houston took two of three games against Portland during the regular season SU, while going 1-2 ATS. The Rockets have had the upper hand in this head-to-head series lately, going 7-1 SU and 4-4 ATS the last eight matchups.
Another statistic that jumps off the page is that the ‘over’ has cashed the previous four games in this series. The highest total in any of those contests was 190 points. Only twice during those stretches did a team eclipse 100 points, and one of those games went to overtime.
Outlook: There are some incredible matchups in this first-round series where homecourt advantage could be the ultimate deciding factor. Expect a very close, hard-fought series that goes all seven games. In that scenario, Portland has the advantage armed with its 34-7 Rose Garden record.
Portland remains a very young team, making its first postseason excursion since 2003. It will be interesting to see how much Roy and Rudy Fernandez step up in this series. However, the best matchup between these teams figures to be in the paint between the Blazers’ rookie Greg Oden against Houston’s Yao Ming.
Houston’s offense will be hampered without McGrady, but the Rockets have had the upper hand against the Blazers recently and they do have more playoff experience. Houston has the better team defensively with Yao patrolling the paint and the team has a better basketball IQ (ie more veteran leadership).
Future Bets: The general public has moved the series price, jumping all over Houston although the Rockets remain an underdog. Portland opened as a $2.00 ‘chalk’ to win this series, but has since been bet down to a $1.80 favorite status. Houston originally was listed as the $1.70 underdog to advance to the second round, but is now listed as a $1.40 ‘dog.
Portland finished just one game ahead of Houston in the regular season standings, garnering the fourth seed and homecourt advantage for the first round. The 4-5 matchups are usually the most balanced of the playoffs, and it’s usually wise to take the underdog in these situations. The Rockets did take two of three games from the Blazers during the regular season, but Houston is without its best player in Tracy McGrady who is ‘out’ the rest of the year with a knee injury.