Houston Hoops

2017-2018 preview: Rockets are poised to make a deep playoff run

James Harden will once again lead one of the best offenses in the NBA. Houston Rockets/Facebook

Well that offseason flew by. The regular season is back in action this week, and after a wildly forgettable second round playoff exit, a new-look Rockets team looks set to once again try to be the David to Golden State’s Goliath. I’ll be covering the team on a weekly basis from here on, so I suppose now is a pretty decent time to get acquainted with the 2017-2018 squad.

What’s New?

Well, a lot; but before we dive completely in, let’s get a little context. Last season, the Rockets swaggered into the playoffs with a 55-27 record as the third seed and dispatched the Oklahoma City Westbrooks (more commonly known as the Thunder) in convincing fashion, four games to one. Suddenly there were murmurs that Golden State might have a challenger to the Western conference throne. Those murmurs were almost immediately snuffed out after a disappointing effort against the San Antonio Spurs, who sent the Rockets home with their tail between their legs after a 114-75 blowout game six clincher. Rockets superstar and MVP runner-up James Harden finished 2-11 with 10 points and six turnovers that game.

Such an embarrassing playoff exit after a brilliant regular season campaign left Rockets fans frustrated. I was personally dejected. It looked like a team that quit, and I decided that if the team was content with first and second round exits, then I’d prioritize watching them accordingly. It was obvious that the team - as constructed - couldn’t make a deep playoff run because Harden was simply out of gas after carrying the team all season. To add to the issue, there simply weren’t any clear cut answers to the problem out in free agency. Rockets GM Daryl Morey reassured the media that he “had a few tricks up his sleeve,” this offseason, and the Rockets fans all collectively smiled and nodded.

Sure, you do, Daryl. Sure, you do.

Then it happened. A little more than two weeks after the Finals had wrapped up, Morey swapped roughly half of our bench with the Los Angeles Clippers for superstar point guard Chris Paul; effectively pulling the trigger on the biggest trade the Rockets had executed since bringing in Harden in 2012.

Well…that’s uh….that’s a pretty good trick, Morey.

But he wasn’t done there. While everyone was busy dropping hot takes over whether Harden and Paul could coexist, Morey was low-key rebuilding the bench with gritty defenders that can shoot the three. The next thing you know, the Rockets had signed just that in forwards P.J. Tucker and Luc Mbah a Moute. Adding to the intrigue of this new look roster is the Chinese freak of nature, Zhou Qi (pronounced “jo chee”), who – while his minutes may be limited to begin with – could eventually provide a serious matchup issue as a seven-footer with a jumper who can stretch the floor.

What to Expect:

The Rockets starting five is almost identical, with the exception of the addition of one of the best point guards in the league. James Harden will still be the work horse, but I expect his notoriously absent defense to return once again now that Paul is there to shoulder some of the load. They’ll each be given time to operate the offense on their own while the other rests, but when they’re both on the floor, look out. As long as Ryan Anderson regains some semblance of a reliable three point shot as a stretch four, the starting five will leave opposing defenses with the unenviable predicament of having to choose what poison to be beaten by. If they choose to guard the 3 point line, the Rockets will gut them with Harden, Paul, Eric Gordon and – to a lesser extent – Trevor Ariza off the dribble. Anyone who has watched the Rockets play a game the past few years knows that playing loose and focusing on guarding the rim isn’t even an option. Losing fan favorite Patrick Beverly wasn’t my favorite part of the Chris Paul trade, but I expect  Tucker to fill the role of the scrappy defender that Beverly left behind. Keep an eye on Zhou Qi as he adjusts to the NBA. Like I said, if he can transition quickly enough, he has the potential to be a better stretch big than Ryan Anderson and can produce some serious headaches for opposing defenses.

In short, expect a more dynamic Rockets offense to be complimented by a much better defensive effort. This team, if healthy, looks poised to make a much deeper run than last season’s group.

Prediction:

The key is a healthy Chris Paul, which isn’t a guarantee. If he’s healthy, this is a team that can win the southwest division. I predict just that, and at worst they fall second to the Spurs. As far as the playoffs go, I can see a deep run, potentially to the Western Conference Finals. I envision the Thunder being an issue if their new core manages to jell early enough into the season, as well as the Spurs (as usual), and of course the Warriors. A possible pest team could be the Timberwolves, considering the moves they’ve made in the offseason. But now to the question that everyone’s been asking since 2015:

Can they beat the Warriors?

Here’s the deal. Last summer I started powerlifting and got about as strong as I’ve ever been in my entire life. I became pretty confident because I assumed that I was stronger than just about every average person I came in contact with. Then I’d meet up with my buddy, Jeff, who is a 300 pound professional power lifter, watch him bench press 500 pounds, and I fall back down to earth.

The Warriors are Jeff. They’re too big, and too strong, and too deep. No matter what the Rockets do at the moment, they will never be as big as Jeff. I certainly hope I’m wrong, but unless there are multiple serious injuries to the Warriors, it’s essentially their world and we’re just living in it. That doesn’t mean that the Rockets won’t be a ton of fun to watch this year, though.

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Yordan Alvarez's homer in Wednesday's game gave him 100 RBI on the season. Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

Winners of three straight, six of their last seven, and eight of their last ten, the Astros had the chance to move yet another game closer to clinching their playoff spot if they could secure the series with a win against the Angels on Wednesday. Even though it looked as though they were headed towards a loss in extra innings, they would ultimately come out ahead.

Final Score (12 innings): Astros 9, Angels 5

Astros' Record: 91-61, first in the AL West

Winning Pitcher: Yimi Garcia (4-9)

Losing Pitcher: Sam Selman (0-1)

Garcia goes six shutout innings

Although he didn't have swing-and-miss dominance in this start, Luis Garcia could still capitalize on a struggling Angels offense and post a shutout quality start against them. He allowed three walks and three hits throughout his outing but stranded all of them while getting outs on balls in play. His final line: 6.0 IP, 3 H, 0 ER, 3 BB, 1 K, 79 P.

Alvarez reaches 100 RBI as Houston's offense keeps rolling

That performance had Garcia in line for the win, as two homers handed him a 3-0 advantage which he held. Houston once again used early offense to take a first-inning lead, as a leadoff walk by Jose Altuve turned into a monster 456-foot by Yordan Alvarez, pushing him to 100 RBI on the season. The score held at 2-0 until the top of the fifth, when Jason Castro led that frame off with a solo homer to extend the lead to three runs.

Extras in Anaheim

Phil Maton was first out of Houston's bullpen in the bottom of the seventh, but a single, double, and walk loaded the bases with no outs to put him in a jam. A lineout kept the runners put for the first out, but a single and a walk would make it a one-run game and left the bases loaded as Maton would get pulled.

Kendall Graveman entered to try and stop the bleeding, but after a force out at home to put that within reach, Jack Mayfield came through for Los Angeles with a go-ahead three-run double, giving the Angels their first lead of the series at 5-3. In the top of the eighth, a walk by Alex Bregman brought Alvarez back to the plate, and he would nearly miss a game-tying homer and instead got an RBI-single to make it 5-4.

Alvarez would still come in to tie the game, hustling home from second on an RBI single by Yuli Gurriel to knot things up 5-5. Brooks Raley was Houston's next reliever, and he sat down LA in order with two strikeouts. Still tied in the bottom of the ninth, Ryan Pressly came in to force extras, and despite being shadowed by the winning run on the bases after a leadoff single, retired the next three batters to send the game to the tenth.

Astros keep battling and take it in the twelfth

Jake Meyers took second base as Houston's free runner in the top of the tenth, but he would go nowhere as the Astros went down in order, giving the Angels another chance at a walk-off. Instead of giving Shohei Ohtani a free pass immediately, Houston would let Blake Taylor throw two balls to him before giving him the intentional walk.

Taylor then gave up a single to load the bases with no outs, and after getting a force out at home for the first out, Yimi Garcia would replace him. Thanks to a great play by Chas McCormick, giving him multiple in the game, the Astros would live to see another inning as he would make a great catch in right field and then throw out Ohtani at home.

In the top of the eleventh, a sac fly by Yuli Gurriel moved Aledmys Diaz to third, but that's as close as Houston would come, leaving them stuck at five runs. After Garcia retired three more batters in the bottom of the eleventh, the game moved to the twelfth, where Houston would get back in front on an RBI single by Jake Meyers, then padded the new lead on a two-RBI double by Jose Altuve, who would also score on a sac fly by Alex Bregman, making it 9-5. Josh James came in and wrapped things up in the bottom half as Houston secured the series victory and reduced their magic number to two against Oakland and three against Seattle.

Up Next: The finale of this four-game series, and the last time these two teams will meet this year, will be an 8:38 PM Central start on Thursday. The expected pitching matchup is Alex Cobb (8-3, 3.59 ERA) for Los Angeles and Lance McCullers Jr. (12-4, 3.11 ERA) for Houston.

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