THE PALLILOG

Charlie Pallilo: On UH winning, the Rockets on a roll going into the break and Astros talk

James Harden and the Rockets are on a historic pace. Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

It didn’t quite wake up the echoes of Phi Slama Jama, but it was quite a night Thursday for the University of Houston basketball program. The Cougars taking down the 5th ranked team in the nation beating Cincinnati 67-62 doesn’t quite clinch an NCAA Tournament bid for UH, but the Coogs should feel free to order their dancing shoes. It will be just their second Big Dance appearance in the last quarter century.

Texas Southern’s Health and Physical Education Arena has served the Cougars well as a temporary home this season (and it’s a good thing because there’s a strong possibility the new Fertitta Center won’t be ready for the start of next season). UH is now 13-0 there. The joint wasn’t quite two-thirds full for Cincinnati, but the joint was jumpin’. Frankly the atmosphere was better than that at Toyota Center for most Rockets’ games—which is ridiculous given the Rockets’ magnificence this season, but whatever.

UH gets its 20th win of the season and has achieved something that even the final Phi Slamma Jamma team (1983-84) did not: beat 2 teams ranked 7th or higher in the national rankings. The win was the Cougars’ first over a Top 5 team since 1996.

Kelvin Sampson is simply an outstanding coach. His undersized team does the signature thing that most Sampson teams have done, reeeeally sink their teeth in on defense. Cincy is no offensive powerhouse, but the UH D absolutely suffocated the Bearcats who made one field goal over a 12 minute stretch in the second half.

Rockets on a roll

Behold the tedium of NBA All-Star Weekend! Nothing tedious about the Rockets. They are rightfully happy to have a week off, but it feels a bit like pushing the pause button on their tidal wave of momentum. Their second 10+ game winning streak of the season coupled with Golden State splitting its last eight games means for the first time ever the Rockets have the NBA’s best record at the break. 44-13! It would now take a borderline collapse for the Rockets to not break the franchise record for wins in a season. The ’93-’94 squad posted 58 wins. All these Rockets need to top that is a 15-10 finish.

Joe Johnson and Brandan Wright choosing the Rockets as buyout-free agents shouldn’t be that a big deal in bolstering the Rockets. Where is there regular significant playing time for either? Johnson played 31 minutes in his Rockets’ debut Wednesday, but Eric Gordon didn’t play and Trevor Ariza remains out. Wright should be an upgrade over Tarik Black as Clint Capela’s backup on the nights Nene sits out. The Johnson and Wright additions might be bigger in that the Rockets landing them means the Warriors, Spurs, Thunder, or other possible Rockets’ playoff opponents didn’t get them.

When the league comes out of hibernation next Friday there will be two compelling Western Conference races over the final seven weeks of the regular season. The Rockets and Warriors are in a match race for the top seed, then there are eight teams chasing the other six spots. The Spurs sit third best in the West, but may presently have the 10th best team. No sign of Kawhi Leonard returning. LaMarcus Aldridge and Manu Ginobili hobbled into the break. That the Spurs could wind up in the draft lottery just seems preposterous, but they are just three and a half games ahead of the 9th place Clippers and four and a half ahead of the 10th place Jazz who roared into the break on an 11 game winning streak. The Spurs’ preposterous run of 18 consecutive seasons winning at least 50 games may be coming to an end. Or, Leonard and Aldridge could both be healthy by mid-April and be a dangerous low seed.

Astros are back

We’re under six weeks to the Astros beginning their World Series Champion defense March 29th in Arlington. We’ll see how soon Manager A.J. Hinch settles upon Justin Verlander or Dallas Keuchel as his opening day starting pitcher. For the best of reasons there really are no compelling Astros’ storylines this spring. They are loaded both in the everyday lineup and on the pitching staff.

The silence is neither golden nor deafening re: absolutely no indication of the Astros attempting (or being rebuffed in an attempt) to talk contract extension with Jose Altuve. The reigning MVP is under contract this year as their 10th highest paid player (tied with Tony Sipp. Tony Sipp!). The Astros control Altuve with an option for 2019 that slates him to make less money than Pat Neshek among many, many others.

Buzzer Beaters

 1. Cake doughnuts are much better than yeast doughnuts   2. I would try the luge but not the skeleton.  3. Favorite NBA All Star Game memories:  Bronze-vacant  Silver-vacant  Gold-Magic Johnson in 1992

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The media has mixed feelings about the James Harden trade. Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

James Harden was 100-percent exactly right earlier this week when he said the Houston Rockets were "just not good enough."

How could they be? Not when their moody superstar scorer, who makes about half a million dollars per game, shows up chubby, looking like a kielbasa about to explode in the microwave. Hey, some people eat when they're unhappy, it's a defense mechanism. In Harden's case, the only defense he's exhibited this season. At least he had a good excuse for missing pre-season training camp and alienating his teammates - he was busy partying with Cinnamon and Cherish in Atlanta and Vegas without a mask. Worst of all, he went into the tank his last four games in a Rockets uniform, standing around, arms folded, scoring fewer than 20 points each time, all Rockets losses. Fans in the front row were asking him to move, he was blocking their view of players who cared about winning. James Harden sabotaged his own team, a team that offered him $50 million a year to stay. Something that crazy could only happen in professional sports these days.

There's a saying that drives the American labor movement: "a fair day's wage for a fair day's work." It's the motto of the American Federation of Labor. The National Basketball Players Association is not a member. Harden's sulking on the court, cheating the Rockets and their fans, was unforgivable.

Harden, sitting out games while somehow being on the court, forced the Rockets to trade him - and quick - to Brooklyn. The trade, when you ignore the fine print and unindicted co-conspirators Cleveland and Indiana, sent Harden to Brooklyn in exchange for Caris LeVert (immediately flipped for Victor Oladipo), Jarrett Allen, three first-round draft picks and four swapped first-rounders. It's true, when you trade a superstar, you never get back equal value. The other team wins.

If it makes Rockets fans feel any better, the media in New York already has problems with their new problem child. I should say newest problem child. Kyrie Irving plays for the Nets.

"They (the Nets) gave up everybody! There's nothing left now. I just want to cry, It's awful," weeped WFAN Radio talk host Evan Roberts. For those who don't subscribe to weekly Arbitron ratings reports, WFAN is the most powerful, top-rated sports talk station in the Apple.

"You're leading down the road of doom. Harden and Durant could be gone in a year and a half. I'm not convinced this gives them a better chance to win a title. I'm living a nightmare again. They better freaking win."

Circle March 3 on your Rockets schedule. That's when the Brooklyn Nets, with their Big 3 of Kevin Durant, James Harden and possibly Kyrie Irving visit Toyota Center. I hear talk radio salivating over the record jeers that will cascade over Harden's name, although I'm not buying it. Fans don't think like the media does. I'm thinking that Rockets fans will welcome Harden back - one night only - with cheers.

Toyota Center public address announcer Matt Thomas: "Usually when former Rockets come to town for the first time since leaving, I give them a positive introduction. It's up to the fans how to react."

James Harden spent eight seasons with the Rockets. He is a spectacular player who watched other NBA players engineer trades so they could compete for a title. Harden didn't think the Rockets were good enough, and he's right. So he wanted out. We've all been there, a job we didn't like for a company we didn't like, for a boss we didn't respect. Harden wanting to be traded is understandable. How he went about it was deplorable. He hurt his co-workers.

Houston will make Harden pay for his disrespectful departure. He has an upscale restaurant set to open here. The name of the steakhouse will be "13." Harden's business partners may want to change that number ... before the restaurant's telephone number is disconnected. There are plenty of other restaurants in Houston. Rich people who can afford steakhouse prices hold grudges.

Rockets fans searching for a silver lining say, "We got two decent players and a whole bunch of precious first-round picks" for a malcontent who would rather be anywhere (except maybe Sacramento) than Houston." Yes, a bunch of first-round picks does bode well for the future. Anywhere, except maybe Houston.

Houston's draft war room isn't the most successful operation in the NBA. Over the past decade prior to 2000, under the direction of general manager Daryl Morey, the Rockets made 16 draft picks. Not one of them is still in a Rockets uniform, many of them have sought employment outside of America, some outside of basketball. Among their first-round whiffs: Nikola Mirotic, Terrence Jones, Sam Dekker - all out of the league. Best of all, Royce White, who played three whole games in his NBA career and finished with a scoring average of 0.00 points per game.

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