3 under-the-radar reasons why the Rockets are terrorizing the NBA right now

P.J. Tucker has helped boost excellent bench play. Christian Petersen/Getty Images

You might not have noticed, because despite the Texans struggles, football season is still upon us. And maybe you are still hung over from the Astros World Series run. And maybe, just maybe, you are not into the Rockets because...well, playoff James Harden looms. Charlie Pallilo pondered these factors in his weekly column.

What you have missed is a team that is off to a league-best 22-4 start, winning 11 in a row. They are unbeaten with Chris Paul in the lineup. Their average point total of 114.8 is second only to Golden State’s 117.0. Their point differential of plus-11 is tied with the Warriors for best in the league. (The closest team to either of them is Toronto -- at plus 7.3). They have one road loss all season. During the 11-game win streak, they are dominating opponents, beating nine of them by double digits with an average margin of victory of 17 points in that span.

The Warriors remain the team to beat, but this Rockets group is dominating in Golden State fashion, and still has room to improve. It remains to be seen if they can continue to play at this level and beat the Warriors in a seven-game series, but it is no longer ridiculous to think that could happen.  Last week Paul Muth broke down 3 key reasons for the great start. He focused on Harden, Paul and Clint Capela. But there are some other, less obvious reasons for the Rockets’ running roughshod at the moment.

Obviously, Harden, Paul, Capela and Eric Gordon are huge factors. Paul scored a season high 31 on Wednesday and is averaging 16.2 points and 9.6 assists per game. He is also averaging just over 2 steals per game. Meanwhile, Harden continues to play at an MVP level, leading the league with 31.6 points per game, 5.1 rebounds and 9.4 assists and shooting a stellar 45.9 percent from the floor, including 40.2 from 3-point land. All Gordon has done is chip 18.9 PPG and provide a huge offensive boost off the bench. But there are  less obvious reasons the Rockets are playing so well.

Muth mentioned the play of  Capela in his piece as a key factor and the Rockets center has taken his game to another level, averaging 13.5 points and 11 rebounds per game, leads the league in shooting percentage at 68 percent and has improved his free-throw shooting from abysmal to almost passable. He had four blocks in the win over Charlotte, and is fifth in the league with 1.88 per game. It was his 10th game with three or more blocks; he only managed six last season in 65 games. His unselfish play fits in very well with the 3-point bombers on the roster, and his emergence is a huge reason for the Rockets’ success. But here are three more reasons that might not be so obvious:

1) The play of the bench

The biggest concern about the Paul trade was that it depleted what was a very strong bench last season. Patrick Beverly was a starter, but Lou Williams was a key bench component, and hopes were high for Sam Dekker and Montrezl Harrell. But Daryl Morey went out and added Luc Mbah A Moute and P.J. Tucker, who are averaging 24 and 26 minutes per game respectively. Throw in veteran Nene, and the second unit with Gordon leading the way matches up with any bench in the league. This group has been much better than expected and is another reason the Rockets are on a roll. Plus/minus is not a great stat in basketball, but against the Hornets Wednesday night, Mbah A Moute was plus 13, Tucker plus 12, Nene plus 32 and Gordon plus 21. That wins you a lot of games.

2) Ryan Anderson

On the surface, he does not look better than last season, when he averaged 13.6 points per game and shot a respectable .403 from 3-point land. This year, he is averaging fewer points at 11.7 per game, but he is more efficient. He is taking fewer shots (8.9 per game compared to 10.7 per game last season) but has improved his shooting percentage from .418 to .455 and his 3-point percentage is up slightly at .407. The Rockets tried tirelessly to shed his contract in a desperate attempt to land Carmelo Anthony, but Anderson has been a nice fit, especially since Paul returned to the lineup. He has better shooting and 3-point percentages than Anthony, who is a much higher volume shooter. He understands his role, and is quietly thriving as a secondary option to the big scorers. In John Hollinger’s Player Efficiency Rating, he ranks only slightly lower than Anthony. That’s not to say Anthony is not a better player. But Anderson has been a perfect fit with this group and continued chemistry with Paul will only make him better.

3) Significant improvement on defense

This might be the single most important reason the Rockets are playing so well. The Rockets were 18th in defensive rating last year. This year they are fifth, according to basketballreference.com. A lot of that comes from Capela’s improvement and the addition of Paul, but the bench guys of Mbah A Moute and Tucker have brought a strong presence on the defensive end of the court as well. This is one area where the Rockets have been better than the Warriors (Golden State ranks 7th) and might be the biggest key come playoff time, and the biggest factor as to why they are playing so well.

Of course, success in December does not always translate into playoff success. The Rockets could easily improve as teammates become more familiar with Paul. They could also regress. Time will tell, and questions will remain until April, May and perhaps June. But if you have not been paying attention, now might be a good time to start.

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Houston loses to end the road trip

Dodgers get best of Odorizzi to split series with Astros

Jake Odorizzi allowed four home runs over three innings against the Dodgers on Wednesday. Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images.

After spoiling the night of many Dodgers fans in the opener of this two-game series in Los Angeles the night prior, the Astros returned to the stadium to a fresh set of hostile fans, looking to get the mini-sweep. This one went much more in favor of the home team, though, as the Dodgers would ride three big innings to start the game to the win for the series split.

Final Score: Dodgers 7, Astros 5

Astros' Record: 65-43, first in the AL West

Winning Pitcher: Max Scherzer (9-4)

Losing Pitcher: Jake Odorizzi (4-6)

Odorizzi gets shelled

After a Michael Brantley solo home in the top of the first run against Max Scherzer, making his Dodger debut, it looked like the Astros may continue their momentum from the night before to grab hold of this game as well. However, that all changed in the bottom of the inning, as the Dodgers would tee off against Jake Odorizzi.

In that inning, he allowed four runs, a leadoff solo shot by Mookie Betts, then later a three-run blast by Will Smith. Betts made it 2-for-2 with solo homers in the bottom of the second, extending the lead to 5-1. Things went from bad to worse in the third, with Los Angeles getting their fourth home run, this one for two runs to make it a 7-1 game. Odorizzi would finish the third but go no further.

Scherzer K's 10 over seven innings in his Dodger debut

Houston tried to start clawing back into it in the top of the fourth, getting a second run against Scherzer with a two-out RBI-single by Kyle Tucker, trimming the lead to five runs at 5-2. First out of Houston's bullpen was Yimi Garcia in the bottom of the fourth, and he tossed the first 1-2-3 inning for Houston. Rafael Montero was next in the bottom of the fifth, working around a leadoff double followed by a walk for a scoreless inning.

Montero remained in the game in the bottom of the sixth, still 7-2, and would get another scoreless inning, this time sitting down the Dodgers in order. Scherzer finished his quality debut for his new team in the top of the seventh, erasing a leadoff walk to complete seven innings while allowing two runs.

Astros lose to split the series with Dodgers

Brooks Raley was Houston's next reliever, and he, too, would get through a scoreless inning by erasing a two-out single. In the game-within-the-game, the Dodgers brought in Joe Kelly for the top of the eighth, who notched two strikeouts to bring none other than Carlos Correa to the plate, setting up a rematch of the well-known incident that led to the "pouty face" clip from 2020. Carlos Correa won this round, launching a 405-foot homer off of Kelly to make it a four-run game at 7-3.

Phil Maton kept the score there, stranding two runners in the bottom of the eighth to send the 7-3 game to the top of the ninth, where the Dodgers would bring in Kenley Jansen. After a leadoff single, Kyle Tucker would get the Astros within two runs on a two-run homer, making it 7-5. That's as close as they would get, as Jansen would regroup to get the next three batters out to wrap up the loss for Houston.

Up Next: With this road trip completed, the Astros will have a quick turnaround as they catch a late flight back to Houston then turn around with a game Thursday at 7:10 PM Central to open a four-game series with the Twins. Framber Valdez (7-2, 3.01 ERA) will take the mound for Houston in the opener, while Minnesota will counter with Griffin Jax (1-1, 6.41 ERA).

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