THE PALLILOG

Charlie Pallilo: Rockets should make quick work of the T Wolves

James Harden and the Rockets should have no trouble with the Wolves. Rockets.com

The two most renowned local steakhouses in Minneapolis are Manny’s and Murray’s. Best I can tell neither Manny nor Murray has wolf on his menu, but the Timberwolves should be meat in their first playoff appearance in 14 years. It’s not an automatic that the Rockets dispatch the Timberwolves in the first round, but it is a mismatch on paper.

The Rockets won an astounding 65 games this season, 18 more than Minnesota. Not that regular season meetings are close to foolproof in dictating how a playoff matchup will go, but the Rockets whipped the Wolves in all four games this season winning by 18, 18, 18, and 9 points. The Rockets were the best offensive team in the NBA this season. They should carve up the league’s fourth worst defense. The T’Wolves can score, ranking fourth best offensively. However, Minnesota attempted and made the fewest three pointers in the league. Without stepping up there it’s tough to see the Timberwolves hanging with the Rockets’ firepower over the course of the series. The 22-year-old Karl-Anthony Towns is an absolute stud offensive player. He is a 55-percent shooter from the floor, a 42-percent 3-point maker and 86 percent at the line. And props to KAT for playing all 82 games of the regular season, as did fellow Minny starters Andrew Wiggins and Taj Gibson. The Rockets’ defensive depth takes a hit with the injury absence of Luc Mbah a Moute, but losing Luc is no series shifter. Jimmy Butler is a top tier defender, but unless James Harden’s level of play dramatically dips Butler shouldn’t dramatically disrupt Harden’s effectiveness. Thinking Rockets in five.

The way the cookie crumbled at the end of the congested Western Conference race below the Rockets and Warriors means the Rockets in round two will (better!) face either the Thunder or the Jazz. Upset potential would loom larger there.

Five times since the NBA expanded to 16 playoff teams in 1984, a number eight seed has stunned a number one seed. The first occurrence presumably aided the Rockets’ route to their first NBA Championship in 1994. The first round was a best-of-five in those days, and Denver rallied from two games down to shock Seattle. Most recently the 76ers bumped off the Bulls in 2012 after MVP Derrick Rose tore an ACL in game one. That came the year after Memphis ousted San Antonio. In 1999, The Jeff Van Gundy-coached Knicks took out Miami, and kept on going all the way to the NBA Final before losing to the Spurs. The cake-taker eight topples one was in 2007 when Don Nelson’s 42-40 Golden State team (the Warriors’ first playoff appearance in 13 years) befuddled and overwhelmed Avery Johnson’s 67-15 Dallas Mavericks’ team.

Getting the boot

A little bit of a bummer that the NBA scheduled Rockets-Timberwolves Game 1 for Sunday night, since the Astros and Rangers are the weekend’s Sunday Night Baseball game.

The Rangers ran rings around the Astros for years with the Silver Boot took up seeming permanent residence in Arlington. That was then. Now, the Astros are a juggernaut poised to be excellent for years. The Rangers are naut. As in naut good. And not looking like they’ll be good any time soon. Sunday night’s pitching matchup perfectly frames where the Astros are vs. where the Rangers are. The Astros pitch Justin Verlander, a 35 year old horse in prime physical condition on top of his game. The Rangers pitch Bartolo Colon who next month turns 45, is listed at 5 feet eleven inches tall, weighing 285 pounds.

Nothing wrong with the Astros 9-4 start, though it does leave them in second place in the American League West later than they were ever out of the lead last season. It would be nice to see flashes of George Springer World Series MVP sometime soon. Since his season opening leadoff home run Springer has been sub-replacement level, batting .157 without a second dinger. Over his last seven games Springer has been worse: three measly singles in 28 at bats (.107). Less than 10 percent of the season has been played. Yeah, let’s hold off from any silly notion about suggesting A.J. Hinch demote Springer from the leadoff spot. The guy is in the heart of his prime at 28 years old. Springer can be streaky, but season-to-season he’s been consistently very good, and last year excellent. Of course he could have an off year relative to 2017, but Springer should still hit .260+, with a solid number of walks drawn, and with 25+ homers.

Buzzer Beaters

1. Andre Ingram’s 10 years in the making NBA debut against the Rockets Tuesday is as cool as anything in sports so far this year.   2. It will be laughable if the Cleveland Browns draft Josh Allen No. 1 overall. 3. The NBA’s greatest Allens: Bronze-Lucius Silver-Iverson  Gold-Ray

 

Deshaun Watson takes his act to New York. Tim Warner/Getty Images

The Texans Saturday play a lousy 4-9 Jets team Saturday now without its leading rusher (Isaiah Crowell) and leading pass catcher (Quincy Enunwa). Then they face a probably Carson Wentz-less Eagles team seeing its Super Bowl championship defense die away. Then the awful Jaguars come to Houston. 12-4 is right there for the Texans, but that will only be enough for the number three seed in the AFC and a Wild Card weekend home game unless the fading Steelers rise up Sunday to knock off the Patriots. That game is in Pittsburgh. The Patriots' final two games are both at home against the Bills and Jets.

With the Patriots losing their game to the Miami Miracle, on one hand you can say the Texans blew a massive opportunity in losing at home to the Colts. On the other hand the Colts were clearly the better team in ending the Texans' nine game winning streak.

The loss to Indy was a reality check. The Texans are a pretty good team, but glaring areas of weakness keep it from being a reeeeally good team. The offensive line is flat lousy in pass protection, though sometimes Deshaun Watson makes it look even worse by holding on to the ball too long. Pending free agent moves in the offseason, one of the Texans' top two draft picks next spring MUST be spent on an offensive lineman, the other on a cornerback (if not on another o-lineman). Even in their zone-heavy scheme, the Texans lack corners who run well enough. If the pass rush isn't raising hell, the secondary is Swiss cheesy. Remember, the Texans have an extra second pick this spring, acquired from Seattle in last year's Duane Brown trade.

If somehow the Texans chump up two of their remaining three games, as long as one of the losses isn't to the Jaguars they still win the AFC South even if the Titans or Colts win out.

Coogs' house

None of the Phi Slama Jama era Houston Cougar basketball teams started a season better than 5-0. Sunday Kelvin Sampson's Coogs go for a Bo Derek (perfect 10, anybody remember Bo?) start. Only UH team ever to open 10-0: the Elvin Hayes-led '67-'68 squad that went 31-0 and along the way beat UCLA in the Game of the Century before the Bruins obliterated the Cougars at the Final Four.

The new Fertitta Center is a modest-sized gem, and currently offers the hands down best sports environment in town. Non-Cougars are never going to embrace UH in big numbers especially not in a major league sports town, so UH's "For the City" slogan doesn't hit the mark. But so what? Drawing more of the Cougar base, plus any outside of it who might have some interest piqued by intensely played quality college basketball is good enough.

Rockets rumors

The Rockets have been vastly less excitement-inducing this season, though James Harden's closing brilliance in a 50 point explosion Thursday night to put away the Lakers was a doozy. Getting back to and then over ,500 is the Rockets' near term goal. A good month of sustained quality play is needed to restore credibility. Chris Paul's overall level of play remains a serious concern. The rumor this week of their interest in Cleveland malcontent J.R. Smith, egads! That would render Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey Desperate Daryl. Morey is trying to recover from his awful offseason, but I can't believe he sees J.R. Smith as worthwhile.

Speaking of Morey's offseason work, the Rockets Saturday gain the right to trade Carmelo Anthony. What a bonanza must await in return!

Astros still armed

Not a great look for the Astros that they tugged on their purse strings while the Tampa Bay Rays of all teams guaranteed Charlie Morton $30 million dollars over the next two years. The Astros did not err. Morton was on balance outstanding in his two Astro seasons but he wore down badly this year, and at 35 years old his arm is a ticking bomb. The Astros should add an established starting pitcher, but even if Jeff Luhnow doesn't, the Collin McHugh/Brad Peacock/Josh James/Framber Valdez quartet isn't an indefensible plan to cover three rotation spots while waiting on elite prospect Forrest Whitley's arrival during the 2019 season. If poor performance/injuries are issues, nothing precludes a notable in-season trade. That Verlander fellow worked out okay a couple of seasons ago. A left handed hitter is the obvious other logical Astros' target.

Buzzer Beaters

1. Pipe down Tony La Russa. Harold Baines making the Baseball Hall of Fame is ridiculous. 2. La Russa also used to lambaste those who dared to believe that Mark McGwire might have been a steroid guy. 3. Best teams in the AFC: Bronze-Patriots Silver-Chargers Gold-Chiefs (but barely post-loser Kareem Hunt).

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