Charlie Pallilo: If the Rockets beat the Raptors, how long will this streak go on?

Charlie Pallilo: If the Rockets beat the Raptors, how long will this streak go on?
James Harden and the Rockets could carry this winning streak a long way. Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

A serious threat to the Rockets’ 17 game winning streak looms Friday night at Toronto. The Raptors aren’t ABC, ESPN, or TNT darlings. Toronto doesn’t count in the Nielsen ratings. What the Raptors are is elite. The Rockets don’t have the best home record in the NBA. The Warriors don’t either. The Raptors do (27-5). So if the Rockets run their winning streak to 18 -- while it would be silly to wonder if the Rockets are going to lose again this season -- viewed on a game-by-game basis they shouldn’t lose again this season. Simply meaning that unless James Harden and or Chris Paul are out hurt or resting the Rockets will definitely be favored in all remaining games.

IF they beat Toronto, taking the streak to 19 is a slam dunk at Dallas Sunday. Faded San Antonio would be probable victim number 20 Monday, the Clippers number 21 on Thursday. That would give the Rockets a chance to match the 10 years old franchise-record winning streak of 22, at New Orleans. The Pelicans are the last team to beat the Rockets.

The Rockets started the season 25-4, then lost five in a row; since that losing skid they are 26-4. They are on pace to win 65 games. Yet if they were only 16-1 over their last 17 games, they would be behind Golden State in the Western Conference standings. To use a boxing analogy the Rockets and Warriors are Ali and Frazier in their primes, the rest of the West is a bunch of Butterbeans.

Tough road for Francis

A pretty compelling read from former Rocket Steve Francis this week in a piece he wrote for The Players’ Tribune website. Some harrowing details of spending part of his youth as a real-life version of one of the corner kids on the brilliant HBO series of a few years back The Wire. Chunks of Francis’s post-NBA life have been a mess: alcohol problems, arrests, and some jail time.  I suppose the article should be taken with grains of salt, but Francis seems to be in a much better life place now.

Keuchel wants the ball

Quick props to Dallas Keuchel for honestly admitting he “wasn’t happy by any means” that A.J. Hinch opted for Justin Verlander as the Astros’ opening day starting pitcher. Why should he be? Keuchel has been a stud three of the last four years, and pitched the Astros to victory each of the last three openers with them twice winning by shutout. Verlander is an unassailable choice. Keuchel was respectful, humorous, and forthright in saying what we should hope to hear from any proud and accomplished competitor.

State of tournament teams in Texas

NCAA Tournament Selection Sunday is almost here. UH knows it’s in. Texas A&M is almost certainly in. Texas is iffy and frankly doesn’t look like it belongs. Baylor’s case is shaky as well. TCU is likely to be dancing for the first time in 20 years. Texas Tech is the best team in the state. All six making the field of 68 would double the Lone Star State participation level of a year ago.

Stephen F. Austin and Sam Houston State are in separate semifinals of the Southland Conference Tournament in Katy, and another Texas representative could emerge from the SWAC Tournament playing out at the Delmar Center Friday and Saturday nights. The second semifinal has Texas Southern vs. Prairie View A&M. Mike Davis has taken the Tigers to the NCAA Tournament three of the last four years; PV has made the Tourney only once in school history (a mere 58 point loss to Kansas in 1998). TSU has seven overall NCAA games to its name, all losses. But once Texas Southern came very close to pulling off what would have been one of the all-time stunners.

In 1995 the Tigers were assigned as 15th seeded designated lambs to be slaughtered by the defending national champion 2nd seeded Arkansas Razorbacks. The Midwest sub-regional site was Austin. Most of the first half went as expected, Nolan Richardson’s Hogs blew out to a 17 point lead. Then TSU clawed back within 11 at the half, before slapping a 17-2 run on the Hogs to start the second half and taking a 52-48 lead. For all but the Pig Sooie shouters it was a blast to watch. Unless specifically rooting for the favorite it’s natural to pull for a huge underdog, plus fans of the other schools in the building were all charged up by the possibility of having the Hogs taken out.

Arkansas led 79-76 in the last 10 seconds when their consensus All-America Corliss Williamson foolishly fouled TSU guard Randy Bolden on a three point attempt. Bolden hit the first two free throws but missed the third leaving it 79-78 Arkansas. Razorback guard Corey Beck then gagged two free throws with three seconds left, but TSU was unable to get a shot up before the buzzer.

Buzzer beaters

1. I’d sign up in a sec for year-round Daylight Saving Time.   2. New Texans’ GM Brian Gaine better come out swinging when free agency starts Wednesday.   3. Best things with peanut butter on a sandwich: Bronze-jelly Silver-marshmallow Gold-banana.

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Astros on the hunt. Composite Getty Image.

With the Astros' surge from 10 games out of first place to within two games of Seattle, catching and going past the Mariners has naturally become the top objective. It's no given to happen but it's right there. In the final series ahead of the All-Star break, while the Mariners are in the midst of four games with the lowly Angels, the last two World Series champions renew (un)pleasantries at Minute Maid Park.

The Astros enter the weekend five games ahead of the Rangers. They lead the season series with the reigning champs four wins to three. While the Astros can't quite finish off the Arlingtonians by sweeping them in this three game set, shoving them eight games back (even further back of Seattle and the current Wild Card teams) and clinching the tiebreaker would seem close to a death blow. Taking two out of three would be fine for the Astros. If the Rangers win the series, they are clearly still in the American League West and Wild Card races coming out of the All-Star break.

Last year the Rangers had the best offense in the AL. So far in 2024 they rank a mediocre eighth in runs per game. Nathaniel Lowe is the lone Ranger (get it?!?) regular playing as well as he did last season. Corey Seager has been fine but not at the MVP runner-up level of last year. Marcus Semien is notably down, as is 2023 ALCS Astros-obliterater Adolis Garcia. Stud 2023 rookie Josh Jung has been out with a broken wrist since ex-Astro Phil Maton hit him with a pitch in the fourth game of this season, though fill-in third baseman Josh Smith has been the Rangers' best player. 21-year-old late season phenom Evan Carter largely stunk the first two months this season and has been out since late May with a back injury. Repeating is hard, never harder than it is now. Hence no Major League Baseball has done it since the Yankees won three straight World Series 1998-2000.

Chasing down the Division at a crazy clip

From the abyss of their 7-19 start, the Astros sweep over the Marlins clinched a winning record at the break with them at 49-44. Heading into the Texas matchup the Astros have won at a .627 clip since they were 7-19. A full season of .627 ball wins 101 games. If the Astros win at a .627 rate the rest of the way they'll finish with 92 wins, almost certainly enough to secure a postseason slot and likely enough to win the West. Expecting .627 the rest of the way is ambitious.

With it fairly clear that Lance McCullers is highly unlikely to contribute anything after his latest recovery setback, and Luis Garcia a major question mark, what Justin Verlander has left in 2024 grows more important. With the way the Astros often dissemble or poorly forecast when discussing injuries, for all we know Verlander could be cooked. Inside three weeks to the trade deadline, General Manager Dana Brown can't be thinking a back end of the rotation comprised of Spencer Arrighetti and Jake Bloss should be good enough. The Astros have 66 games to play after the All-Star break, including separate stretches with games on 18 and 16 consecutive days.

All-Star MIAs

Viewership for Tuesday's All-Star game at Globe Life Field in Arlington will be pretty, pretty, pretty low in Houston. One, All-Star Game ratings are pitiful every year compared to where they used to be. Two, the Astros could be down to zero representatives at Tuesday's showcase. Kyle Tucker was rightfully named a reserve but had no shot at playing as he continues the loooong recovery from a bone bruise (or worse) suffered June 3. Being named an All-Star for a ninth time was enough for Jose Altuve. He opts out of spending unnecessary time in Texas Rangers territory citing a sore wrist. This despite Altuve playing four games in a row since sitting out the day after he was plunked and highly likely to play in all three games versus the Rangers this weekend. Yordan Alvarez exiting Wednesday's rout of the Marlins with hip discomfort and then missing Thursday's game seem clear reasons for him to skip, though he has indicated thus far he intends to take part. Yordan is the most essential lineup component to the Astros' hopes of making an eighth straight playoff appearance.

Ronel Blanco should have made the American League squad on performance, but pretty obviously his 10 game illegal substance use suspension was held against him. As it works out, Blanco will pitch Sunday in the last game before the break which would render him unavailable for the All-Star Game anyway. Blanco is eligible to pitch, but given the career high-shattering innings workload Blanco is headed for, no way the Astros want him on the mound Tuesday. Just last year the Astros kept Framber Valdez from pitching in the game.

While waiting, and waiting, and waiting on Tucker's return, the Astros have also been waiting on Chas McCormick to get back to something even faintly resembling the hitter he was last year. McCormick routinely looks lost at the plate. He has four hits (all singles) in his last 32 at bats with his season OPS pitiful at .572. During the break the Astros should seriously weigh sending McCormick to AAA Sugar Land and giving Pedro Leon a try in a job share with Joey Loperfido.

*Catch our weekly Stone Cold ‘Stros podcast. Brandon Strange, Josh Jordan, and I discuss varied Astros topics. The first post for the week generally goes up Monday afternoon (second part released Tuesday) via The SportsMap HOU YouTube channel or listen to episodes in their entirety at Apple, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.

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