PREVIEW: Rockets at Blazers- Feb. 26

Dec 17, 2022; Houston, Texas, USA; Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard (0) handles the ball while Houston Rockets forward Jabari Smith Jr. (1) defends during the third quarter at Toyota Center. Mandatory Credit: Erik Williams-USA TODAY Sports

PREVIEW: Rockets at Blazers- Feb. 26

The Rockets will look to avoid their ninth straight loss when they visit the Portland Trail Blazers on Sunday night in the final game of a five-game road trip that started before the All-Star Break. Despite sounding hopeful they’d be at full strength for this game earlier in the week, the team ruled out Kevin Porter Jr. and Jalen Green according to the league’s injury report. Porter will miss his 19th straight game due to a left toe injury, while Green will sit for the second straight game after suffering a groin strain the game before the All-Star Break.

Eye on the Blazers

Record: 28-31 (T-11th in Western Conference)

Offensive rating (rank): 116.2 (5th)

Defensive rating (rank): 116.8 (27th)

Portland came out of the break with a 17-point loss in Sacramento on Thursday night, but they played without Damian Lillard (rest), Jerami Grant (rest), and Jusuf Nurkic (calf strain), but are expected to have all three back on Sunday. The Blazers will be without Anfernee Simons due to a sprained ankle suffered on Feb. 14. Currently sitting on the outside of the play-in race, Portland enters Sunday’s game just one game back of New Orleans for 10th in the West, but with as bunched as the standings are, the Blazers are only three games back in the loss column of Phoenix for 4th.

Matchup to watch: Damian Lillard vs Jae’Sean Tate

Lillard might be having the best season of his Hall of Fame career after he was able to only play in 29 games last season. The 32-year-old is averaging a career-high 31.4 points on a career-best 46.7% shooting. Portland has the NBA’s 5th best offensive rating this season at 116.2, but with Lillard on the floor, that number jumps to 120.2, which would be the league’s best offense, but when he’s off, the Blazers score just 108 points per 100 possessions, which would be the NBA’s worst offense. The Rockets limited Lillard to 25 points on 7-of-20 shooting when they faced him in December, but the three players that defended him the most that night, Eric Gordon, Kevin Porter Jr., and Jalen Green, are either not on the team or injured.

What I’m watching for

While he dished out eight assists on Friday night against the Warriors, Alperen Sengun finished with just five points on 2-of-10 shooting and played just 24 minutes. Over his last four games, the Rockets center is averaging nine points on just 35% shooting while attempting a total of eight free throws. With Porter and Green injured, Sengun is the Rockets’ offense and they need more from him. They need him to be more aggressive, and they need him to be more efficient. Sengun has taken just three shots from behind the 3-point line in this four-game stretch, even though teams are giving him that shot. The Rockets need him to take it. A three accounted for one of his two made shots on Friday. He’s shooting 51% from long distance since the calendar turned to 2023, but he’s only attempted 14. Defenses will have to change their approach to Sengun when he starts showing more of a willingness to fire up that shot.

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