THE PALLILOG

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

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

 

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It's go time! Composite Getty Image.

96 games down, 66 games to go as the Astros tackle a fairly significant series in Seattle to open up the figurative second half of the season Friday night. It’s actually just over 40 percent of the schedule remaining. With the Astros having closed within one game of the Mariners in the American League West it’s the biggest series possible for them as the season resumes. But it’s not remotely make or break. Measuring by run differential the Astros should already be out front. They have outscored their opponents by 49 runs while Seattle is just plus-19. The actual standings can be explained in no small part by this comparison: in one-run games the Astros are a pitiful 7-17 while the Mariners are 19-14.

The spectrum of outcomes this weekend ranges from the Astros sweeping and leaving the Emerald City two games on top, to getting swept and heading down the coast to Oakland four games behind. Of note, the Mariners beat the Astros in five of the seven meetings to date this season. So if Seattle wins this series it clinches the season series and playoff tiebreaker should a spot come down to it. The Astros and Mariners have another series to come after this one, three games in Houston the final week of the regular season.

Trade deadline looming

What may be even more important than this weekend’s games is who gets what done between now and the July 30 trade deadline. With Justin Verlander clearly not close to returning, Spencer Arrighetti and Jake Bloss both performance question marks, and both Ronel Blanco and Hunter Brown being asked to handle unprecedented workloads for them, the Astros’ rotation needs obvious fortification. The Mariners’ rotation is second to none in the American League and their bullpen is good. Seattle’s lineup is atrocious. The Chicago White Sox are on pace to be one of the worst teams of all-time. The ChiSox’ offense is a joke with a team batting average of .220. The Mariners’ team average is .219. Only the White Sox and pathetic Marlins are scoring fewer runs per game than the M’s.

The Mariners have 11 players with at least 100 at bats this season. Eight of them have an OPS of .690 or lower. Cal Raleigh has the highest at .734. The Astros have 12 guys with at least 100 at bats including Jose Abreu. Abreu, Chas McCormick, and Mauricio Dubon are the only .690 or worse OPS guys. Kyle Tucker is the Astros’ OPS leader by a significant margin, .979 to Yordan Alvarez’s .912. What’s that you ask? Who is this Kyle Tucker? 35 missed games and counting for “Tuck” with his leg bone bruise, with return not imminent. T-Mobile Park is a notably better pitchers’ park than is Minute Maid Park, but not enough to shrug off the Mariners’ offensive ineptitude. The Mariners team payroll is more than 100 million dollars below the Astros’ payroll. The Mariners have the clearly better farm system from which to deal. If Seattle doesn’t add offense, its ownership and front office will deserve a continued fade in the second half, on top of the Mariners’ 8-15 gimp into the All-Star break.

Don't forget about the Rangers

With the Astros and Mariners going at it this weekend with the division lead in the balance, a reminder that this is not a two-team race. The Texas Rangers rallying to take the final two games at Minute Maid Park last weekend sent up a flare that the reigning World Series Champions are definitely still in the picture. The Rangers sit four games behind the Astros, five back of the Mariners. If the Rangers manage to win their series in Arlington with the Orioles this weekend, they are guaranteed to gain ground on at least one team ahead of them. The Astros-Rangers season series sits tied at five wins apiece with three games left, it will be decided in Arlington the first week of August. The Rangers and Mariners play seven more times.

In broader view, as measured by opponents’ records, the Astros have the toughest remaining schedule among the three. Among the 30 big league clubs the Rangers have the fourth easiest slate left, the Mariners have the fifth easiest, the Astros have the 15th easiest. If the Astros ultimately are not to win the West, there is the Wild Card race to keep in mind. The Astros are seven games behind the Yankees, four behind the Twins, and three and a half back of the Red Sox. Those three currently hold the Wild Card spots. The Astros are also a game and a half behind the Royals. The Astros have already lost the season series and tiebreakers to the Yankees, Twins, and Royals. The Astros and Red Sox have all six of their meetings yet to come.

Remembering Ken Hoffman

This is my first column since the passing last Sunday of my friend and eventual colleague Ken Hoffman. I originally learned of Ken’s quirkiness and wit through his columns at the Houston Post. He was a big sports fan. Our friendship was driven in part by our shared passion for tennis. We played probably more than a thousand times over nearly 20 years. Tennis and baseball were Ken’s two favorite sports. His two favorite athletes were Roger Federer and Jose Altuve. Well, after he and his wife Erin’s son Andrew, who was a pitcher on Trinity University’s 2016 NCAA Division Three national championship-winning team.

*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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