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's offense once again obliterated Baltimore in Wednesday's finale. Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

Owners of a nine-game winning streak, the Astros tried to keep the train rolling to make it double digits and complete the three-game sweep of the Orioles in Baltimore. Not only would they get the win, but they also did it by dominating on both sides of the ball again in a one-sided shutout.

Final Score: Astros 13, Orioles 0

Astros' Record: 46-28, first in the AL West

Winning Pitcher: Jose Urquidy (6-3)

Losing Pitcher: Thomas Eshelman (0-1)

Houston keeps mashing

Unlike Tuesday's game which ended 3-1 in a much closer affair, the finale on Wednesday was once again a lopsided affair like Monda's opener, favoring the Astros. Houston once again put up double-digit runs in an offensive explosion. It started right off the bat, with three runs scoring in the top of the first on a two-RBI double by Carlos Correa and an RBI single by Kyle Tucker to grab a 3-0 lead.

Yuli Gurriel extended it to 4-0 with a two-out RBI single in the second, then Jose Altuve made it a six-run game with a two-run blast in the top of the fourth. Michael Brantley joined in with an RBI single in the top of the sixth, then Yordan Alvarez led off a four-run seventh with a solo bomb before a three-run homer by Abraham Toro made it 11-0.

Urquidy cruises through seven scoreless

Jose Urquidy was cruising all the while, allowing just three baserunners over that span, a double to start his night, which he erased, then a one-out walk in the second and leadoff single in the sixth. He returned at the bottom of the seventh with a manageable pitch count, where he'd erase a one-out single to keep Baltimore scoreless. With the insurmountable lead, he'd be given the rest of the night off. His final line: 7.0 IP, 3 H, 0 ER, 1 BB, 6 K, 84 P.

Astros complete the sweep and grab tenth straight win

Chas McCormick, who came off the bench defensively in the bottom of the seventh, made it a twelve-run lead with a one-out solo homer in the top of the eighth, then later Abraham Toro notched his fourth RBI with a run-scoring single to make it 13-0. Brandon Bielak took over for Urquidy in the bottom of the eighth, and after loading the bases with no outs, was able to escape with a strikeout and double play.

Ralph Garza Jr. was Houston's third pitcher, wrapping things up at the bottom of the ninth. He erased a one-out walk and a single with a double play to end the game, giving Houston the three-game sweep and extending their winning streak to ten games as they continue to look like baseball's best team.

Up Next: The next stop on this road trip for Houston is Detroit, where they will kick off a four-game set with the Tigers on Thursday at 6:10 PM Central. The pitching matchup for the opener will be Luis Garcia (5-4, 2.82 ERA) for Houston and Jose Urena (2-7, 5.79 ERA) for Detroit.

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