THEY WON'T BE RIDING SPACE MOUNTAIN

A fascinating peek at the Rockets' crazy life inside the NBA bubble

Composite image by Brandon Strange.

Earlier this week, the NBA released a 113-page volume of safety and health rules that will be in place when the league resumes play at Disney World next month.

The NBA's "new normal" rivals the warranty for a toaster I bought recently for legal mumbo jumbo. Seriously, 113 pages so you can play basketball in Orlando for a few months? The official United States Citizenship Test Study Guide is only 83 pages. And you can stay in Orlando forever if you pass.

The 22 NBA teams invited to finish the season will hole up in three hotels: upper tier teams get the Gran Destino Tower, teams that have already clinched a playoff spot are assigned the Grand Floridian, and teams barely squeaking their way into Disney must slum it (relatively speaking) at the Yacht Club. The Rockets lucked out, they'll be staying at the Grand Floridian. I've stayed at the Grand Floridian, it's a swanky toast to gentler Victorian times and southern charm. And its bread pudding with vanilla sauce is to die for.

The league will provide every sort of entertainment and diversion imaginable for 20 and 30-somethings. There will be movie night, ping-pong tables and a game room. In other words, summer camp in Texas Hill Country for rich kids.

Except summer camp didn't require life in quarantine for up to three months, and getting a javelin-sized Q-tip shoved up your nose every couple of days. Bubble Boy on Seinfeld had more freedom of movement than NBA players will be allowed at Disney. They won't even be permitted to sneak out for an ice cream sandwich shaped like Mickey Mouse. You're supposed to bite the ears first. The ears melt and drip first.

Players will have to change into their uniforms at their hotel and return to their hotel after the game to take a shower. Every player will get his own room, and the rules didn't mention this, but I'm guessing Disney blocks those, you know, special channels on hotel TVs.

There are rules for everything else, leaving nothing to chance to protect the players' health. They can play ping-pong, but no doubles. Social distancing, you know. Players will be tested for performance-enhancing drugs but not recreational drugs. The NBA rulebook for Disney reminds players that weed is illegal in Florida and a definite no-no on Disney property.

If players want to opt out of traveling to Orlando for any reason, including safety concerns or social issues, it's OK with the league and they won't be punished. However, they won't be paid for any games they miss. Example: if a player makes $10 million for the 2019-20 season, the player will lose about $108,000 per game. Four Rockets are in that lofty tax bracket: Russell Westbrook ($38.5 million), James Harden ($38.1 million), Eric Gordon ($12.4 million) and … ?

It's Robert Covington ($11.3). Bigger surprise, what's Westbrook doing making more money than Harden?

A team can designate a "protected player," who it feels may be at extra risk for contracting coronavirus. A protected player will not have to travel to Orlando, and will receive his full salary. Here's where the penny under the tongue trick comes into play. It's a classic for kids who want to, or need to, miss school for a day. A penny really does raise your temperature a few degrees when your mom sticks a thermometer in your mouth. Sadly, a penny will not help you if your thoroughly modern mom has one of those thermometers she waves across your forehead. Or a rectal thermometer.

If a player had a season-ending injury, he'll receive his full salary, those lucky limping devils.

Players will report to Disney on July 21 for lockdown. They will barely be allowed to leave their hotels, and forget about leaving the Disney campus. I can already see some mischievous players tying sheets together to escape out their rooms like a prison break, or a girl who's got a suitcase packed to elope. If you're caught sneaking out, you'll be put in time out: 10 days of total quarantine with regular "deep nasal" coronavirus testing. Law-abiding players will only undergo "shallow nasal" testing. Given a choice … just stay in your room.

Each team will have its own private dining room. Players will be allowed to order room service without being charged $5,000 for a $15 hamburger. After a few weeks, players can order delivery from certain Orlando-area restaurants. Players will wear special wristbands that serve as room keys and keep track of each time they're tested for the virus. Player lounges will have card tables. New decks will be provided every few games for health reasons, not to prevent P.J. Tucker from card counting.

Players and team personnel, plus mental health experts, media and executives, will have to wear face masks when they're not in their rooms or when they're eating. Players and coaches will not have to wear face masks if they sit in the front row on the bench during games. Sucks to be you, John Lucas and the other second-row assistant coaches. Mask up.

Much has been made of games being played without fans. However, the stands will not be empty. Players will be allowed to attend games of other teams. Also a limited number team and league executives and sponsors will be in the stands. Or pretty much the same crowd as a Timberwolves game. I joke, not because I love, but because I don't live in Minnesota.

Generally speaking, facilities at Disney will be 5-star and first-rate, with every creature comfort imaginable, including 24-hour concierge and on-site manicurists and hair-braiders. In other words, almost as luxurious as that sweet federal prison where actress Lori Loughlin will be sent for bribing her "athletically gifted" daughters into college.

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The Astros suffered a heartbreaking loss to the Yankees Thursday. Composite image by Brandon Strange.

After an impressive two-game sweep of the NL-best Mets at home earlier in the week, the Astros took to the road to begin a four-game series with the league-best Yankees on Thursday night. To little surprise, the series started with a bang (no, not a trash can bang) in more ways than one, confirming that this series should be a must-watch this weekend.

New York's comeback proves no lead will be safe

Right from the get-go, the loud Yankee Stadium faithful had their chance to rain boos down on Jose Altuve before showing some pleasure as he led off the series by being hit by a pitch. They were quickly, though only temporarily, quieted as Altuve would come in to score two batters later on a three-run blast by Alex Bregman.

Three-run homers seemed to be a theme, as New York would get one of their own to tie the game off the bat of Giancarlo Stanton to tie the game, then Yordan Alvarez continued his dominant June by pushing the Astros back in front by three with another three-run bomb in the third, making it 6-3. That lead held through to the bottom of the ninth, where instead of holding it, Ryan Pressly issued two walks to set up the fourth homer of the game to tie things again before Aaron Judge would get a walk-off single to complete the impressive comeback.

Not only will we get to sit back and watch the slug-fest between Yordan and Judge this weekend, but it looks like with Alex Bregman swinging well again to round out the top of Houston's order, the Astros may be getting closer to their full power. So far in June, these two teams sit third and fourth in on-base percentage, with the Astros at .351 and the Yankees right behind at .350. That means we should continue to see scoring opportunities on both sides that can tilt momentum one way or the other as these lineups try to battle against the opposing pitcher.

How will the aces fare

Verlander vs. Judge, and Cole vs. Alvarez, need I say more? Although we won't see Justin Verlander go up against Gerrit Cole in the same game in this series (they should go head to head next Thursday, however), they will pitch on back-to-back days, with Houston's ace going Friday night and New York's on Saturday afternoon. Verlander is coming off his worst start of the year, a three and two-thirds inning outing where the White Sox put up seven runs, four earned, against him and knocked him out early to give him his third loss and increased his ERA from 1.94 to 2.30.

The last time he faced the Yankees was in the Bronx in the 2019 playoffs, in ALCS Game 5, where he went seven frames while allowing four runs, all on two homers in the first inning, which is all New York needed to grab the 4-1 victory to make it a 3-2 Houston lead in the series, which the Astros would go on to clinch in Game 6. So, with the double dose of bad taste in his mouth, it will be interesting to see if he can use that as the fuel to get back to the phenomenal form he's had this year or if the Yankees try to jump on him early like they did nearly three years ago.

Cole, meanwhile, is fresh off of two quality starts in a row against the Rays, where he allowed just one run on six hits with nineteen strikeouts over 13.1 innings of work. He's had his share of strife this season, though, including a seven-run shelling by the Twins earlier this month, along with a start in April where he couldn't make it through two innings against the Tigers. He's had success against his former club, most notably a complete-game shutout in Houston last July with twelve K's and holding the Astros to just three hits.

If the series opener was any indication, we are in for the treat of a playoff-caliber matchup, if not a potential ALCS preview that we may see in October. The Yankees showed why they have the best record and are the hottest team in baseball on Thursday night, but the Astros were only a good outing from their closer away from having a relatively lopsided win. The rivalry is real; the competition is close, and we get to enjoy the show.

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