It will be up to Houston's physical tandem of Ron Artest and Shane Battier to stop Brandon Roy, Portland's top scorer and team leader heading into the upstart Trail Blazers' first playoff appearance since the 2002-03 season.
PORTLAND — It will be up to Houston's physical tandem of Ron Artest and Shane Battier to stop Brandon Roy, Portland's top scorer and team leader heading into the upstart Trail Blazers' first playoff appearance since the 2002-03 season.
Bring them on, Roy says.
"I think that just like they're getting excited about shutting me down, I'm getting excited about not letting them to," he said.
Roy, a two-time All-Star, has been steadily grabbing the league's attention since his debut in 2006-07, when he was named Rookie of the Year.
He is averaging 22.6 points, 4.7 rebounds and 5.1 assists per game this season. He's had 55 games with 20 or more points, and 12 with 30 or more.
The 24-year-old's steadiness, however, may be his greatest contribution to the Blazers. If he's not hitting his shots, he's able to get the ball to a teammate who is. If Portland falls behind, he redefines the team's focus.
"He has a great understanding of the game for a young guy, and a great feel for the game," Battier said. "When you add his athleticism and his ball control, that's a tough guy to stop. It's going to be a long series for Ron and me."
The series gets under way Saturday when the Blazers host the Rockets at the Rose Garden. Portland surpassed expectations and earned the fourth seed in the Western Conference and home-court advantage in the first round.
The Blazers, the youngest team in the playoffs, went 54-28 this season and claimed a share of the Northwest Division title with the Denver Nuggets.
The Rockets, the West's fifth seed, finished 53-29, second to the San Antonio Spurs in the Southwest Division.
But while Portland is the higher seed, their youth and inexperience have put them in an underdog role for the playoffs.
Like many teams, the Blazers have historically had trouble with Houston center Yao Ming, but centers Joel Przybilla and rookie Greg Oden could slow him if they don't get into foul trouble.
Oden, however, did not practice Friday because of a sinus infection. He is considered a game-time decision for the playoff opener.
Roy faces perhaps the toughest challenge in Battier and Artest, who are both taller and bigger than him. Artest outweighs Roy by 50 pounds. Both are considered among the best wing defenders in the league.
"He's a good player. The coach designs plays around him and he makes Portland what they are," Artest said about Roy. "I don't really have a game plan. I just guard people the same way, for years. I just try to play aggressive and I actually let the coach dictate how we want to guard him."
The Blazers know exactly what the game plan will be — Battier and Roy will come out bashing.
"They're big and they're physical," Portland coach Nate McMillan said. "We're a little smaller and we have more speed. So we've got to use our speed to match their physical play. We've got to beat them to spots, beat them to the ball."
In the first meeting this season between the two teams, Roy hit a 31-foot 3-pointer in overtime to give the Blazers a 101-99 victory as the Rose Garden. But that was a very different Rockets team, with Rafter Alston and Tracy McGrady in the starting lineup.
McGrady underwent season-ending microfracture surgery on his left knee in February, while Alston was traded to the Magic in a three-team deal at the deadline.
In the series' two games in Houston, Roy was held to 24-of-61 shooting from the field. The Rockets won the first 98-94, led by Artest with 21 points. They won the second 102-88, a night when Roy was 8-for-20 from the floor.
That was on April 4, and it was the last time the Blazers lost. Portland won six straight to close the regular season.
The Rockets lost their final regular-season game 95-84 to Dallas, dropping them from a shot at a second-place finish in the West to fifth.
While Portland hasn't been to the playoffs in six seasons, the Rockets haven't advanced in the playoffs since 1997, having lost six straight first-round series.
Roy admitted that Artest and Battier are among the toughest defenders he's faced. That said, he's looking forward at another opportunity to face them.
"I'm excited about the challenge. I get to play against Shane Battier and Ron Artest in my first playoff series, and it can only help make me better," he said. "So I'm looking forward to the opportunity.
But he added with a grin: "And we're going to try to shut those guys down, too. It's not a one-way thing."