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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Houston loses first game to Oakland

A's end losing streak against Astros with late homers

Lance McCullers Jr. went five innings of one-run ball Friday night. Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

After maintaining their stronghold against the A's in Thursday's home opener, the Astros had the chance to lock up the three-game series victory against Oakland with a win on Friday night. On the mound, Lance McCullers Jr. hoped to improve upon his first start against this same team, a five-inning one-run outing.

Instead, he would have the same outcome, once again lasting five innings while allowing one run, before a big tie-breaking home run late in the game would push Oakland out of their losing skid against the Astros.

Final Score: A's 6, Astros 2

Astros' Record: 6-2, tied for first in AL West

Winning Pitcher: Yusmeiro Petit (2-0)

Losing Pitcher: Bryan Abreu (1-1)

McCullers Jr. makes it through five

McCullers Jr. looked sharp through the first three innings, allowing just two baserunners, one on a second-inning single, then a walk in the third. Oakland did better against him the second time through their order in the fourth, with Jed Lowrie leading the inning off with a solo home run to put Oakland in front 1-0.

They went on to load the bases with one out on an error and two walks, but McCullers would strand them all. He returned for the fifth, a much cleaner inning where a caught stealing by Martin Maldonado would help him face just three batters. His final line: 5.0 IP, 2 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 3 BB, 6 K, 88 P.

Oakland gets homer-happy to even the series

McCullers Jr. would leave the game without being eligible for the winning or losing decision, as an RBI-groundout by Kyle Tucker in the fourth would have it tied 1-1. Bryan Abreu was the first out of Houston's bullpen, and he would attempt to eat up multiple innings. He had perfect innings in the sixth and seventh, retiring six A's in order to maintain the stalemate.

Abreu remained in the game in the top of the eighth, allowing a single before getting a strikeout, ending his run as Dusty Baker would bring in left-handed Blake Taylor. Taylor would give up a single against his first batter, then a loud go-ahead three-run home run to Matt Olson to push the A's back in front 4-1. They'd add two more insurance runs off of Joe Smith in the top of the ninth, getting a two-run home run by Mark Canha to extend the lead to 6-1.

Oakland's bullpen would hold on to the newly created lead, allowing just one run on a sac fly by Jose Altuve in the bottom of the ninth, finally ending their losing streak against Houston and setting up the rubber game on Saturday to be for the series victory.

Up Next: This series's finale will be a Saturday afternoon start, with first pitch scheduled for 3:05 PM. For the Astros, Jose Urquidy (0-0, 4.15 ERA) will look to get a win on the board, while Oakland will hand the ball to Frankie Montas (0-1, 23.63 ERA).

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