NBA WESTERN CONFERENCE FINALS

Del Olaleye: 3 Reasons the Rockets are hosting Game 1 of the conference finals

Del Olaleye: 3 Reasons the Rockets are hosting Game 1 of the conference finals
P.J. Tucker was a nice offseason addition. Christian Petersen/Getty Images

We’re on the verge on what most basketball people will say was inevitable. It is the matchup “we’ve all been waiting for” and has been frequently positioned as the matchup “we all expected.” That narrative has been true for quite some time but it wasn’t that way before the season and I think pretending that it was does a disservice to the Rockets. There were reasons to not believe in the Rockets before the season started. Specifically, whatever the hell James Harden was doing in Game 6 against the Spurs. It seems dumb now but there were plenty of new and unproven parts that made the Rockets a question mark. Houston used a 65-win regular season to answer a number of those questions. Dismantling the Wolves and the Jazz was the prelude to the impending Death Star that is the Warriors. Here are some of the reasons the Rockets will open Game 1 of the Western Conference finals at home.

1) Harden and Paul coexisting

The obvious first question regarding the Rockets was the Harden/Paul dynamic. How would these two ball-dominant players co-exist? Just fine as it turns out. We’ve seen it all year. Taking turns hasn’t been an issue when they’re both on the floor. They both spend enough of time as the primary ball handler while the other rests on the bench that each has time to be the lead dog without deferring to the other. Credit goes to Mike D’Antoni and his system for creating opportunities for each player to thrive. Both have playoff failures that they’re trying to erase. As it turns out each player might be the best thing for the other’s legacy.

2) The Journeymen

Long thought to be consumed with having three stars on his team, Daryl Morey’s apparent failure to acquire Paul George or Carmelo Anthony in the offseason helped lead to the emergence of PJ Tucker and Luc Mbah a Moute on this Rockets roster. Their additions gave the Rockets a defensive presence that didn’t exist on previous Harden-era teams. The addition of Mbah a Moute came later in the summer and didn’t have the name recognition of Tucker’s but his defensive prowess this season has not gone unnoticed. The two combined have added a surprising offensive boost as well. Tucker’s corner 3s always seem to be made at important junctures. Mbah a Moute has proven to be a better than expected driver and finisher. His ability to take advantage of opponents that are caught trying to rotate to open Rockets surrounding the arc has been a boon. These offseason additions combined with Trevor Ariza and Eric Gordon make the Rockets a versatile force on the defensive end and their varying skills offensively put stress on a opposing defenses as Harden or Paul orchestrate the offense.

Gordon, Ariza, Tucker and Mbah a Moute have each played for at least three different NBA teams. Ariza is the most well-traveled in the NBA, playing for six different teams. Tucker spent five years abroad, playing for seven different teams around the world. The four 30-somethings got it done all year long.

3) Emergence of Capela

After 82 games and several great performances in the playoffs, Clint Capela appears to be garnering all the attention he deserves. The record when Capela, Paul and Harden play is now 50-5. Credit to the people who decided to start keeping that stat. The late first rounder from the 2014 draft has become the fulcrum for the Rocket’s offense as his screen setting and finishing puts the opposing big man in awkward positions. “Do I push up on Chris Paul to take away the mid-range jumper or hang back to avoid a tip dunk or layup from Capela?”

Altered shots may not be an official statistic but the hesitation that Jazz players entered the lane with when Capela was on the floor was evident.  Outplaying Karl Anthony-Towns and Rudy Gobert in back-to-back series certainly came at an opportune time for the impending restricted free agent. Daryl Morey’s decision on whether or not to retain Capela when Paul George and potentially Kawhi Leonard will be available is an interesting one for the Rockets GM. Another big performance in a series win over the Warriors may make Capela an untouchable with Houston.

 

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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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