NBA PLAYOFFS

Del Olaleye: Are the Rockets just another speed bump on the Warriors' path to history?

Del Olaleye: Are the Rockets just another speed bump on the Warriors' path to history?
The Warriors are historically good. Patrick Smith/Getty Images

Can 12 minutes wipe away a season’s worth of accomplishments? Maybe. The Rockets watched a 65-win season and a No. 1 seed go by the wayside after the Warriors outscored them 31-24 in the third quarter of Game 1. A game that was tied at the half turned into a run-away-and-hide game for the defending champs. An obsession with the Warriors pushed Daryl Morey to try to build a team that could compete with and beat the Warriors. Whether the Rockets can do that is still to be determined but initial polling isn’t favorable.

The issue for the Rockets is that there may be nothing that can be done to catch the Warriors. At least not as they’re presently constituted. I saw one Rockets fan tweet “We need to sign Lebron.” That actually may be the only answer. That just speaks to the greatness of the Warriors. Signing the best player in a generation may help a 65-win team beat Golden State. That is an offseason conversation and one that should be had if you believe the gap between the Warriors can’t be closed by internal improvement. I’m in the “this series was over before it started” faction and Game 1 had nothing to do with it.

The opener of the Western Conference finals was a continuation of what we’ve seen from the Rockets over the last thirty games or so. They entered the playoffs playing average basketball and that subpar play didn’t end even as they dispatched of the Wolves and the Jazz. While their defense has been outstanding against two outmatched opponents the offense has lagged behind. The devastating spurts of offensive brilliance for the Rockets have been few and far between this postseason as their defense has carried them. They entered the series playing at a level that wouldn’t get the job  done and facing the Warriors in Game 1 exposed things the Jazz and Wolves were incapable of doing.

That smothering Rockets defense that I talked about earlier didn’t make an appearance in the opener. Defensive lapses that brought back the memories of previous Rockets teams happened far too often. Warriors wide open 3s off of made Houston buckets cost the Rockets dearly. When they did happen to get back on defense, simple back cuts led to easy Golden State layups. In a series with little margin for error, the Rockets defense didn’t play to a level that respected the importance of each possession.

A Game 2 win for Houston changes the energy but not the problems that will exist over the course of the series for the Rockets. Can the Rockets maintain a level of excellence over the next four out of six games that will be needed to earn a trip to the Finals? The talent disparity is an obvious hinderance to that. That disparity doesn’t just manifest itself in one on one matchups but also in how much pressure is felt to play a perfect ball game.

There isn’t any shame in a possible Warriors destruction of the Rockets. Only that guy I mentioned earlier with the last name of James has beaten them in a series since Steve Kerr was hired. The Warriors responded to that defeat by adding the second best player in the world immediately. They haven’t been challenged since.

Are the Rockets just the latest in a line of unmemorable teams that the Warriors run over in their dynasty? Game 2 might give us our answer.

 

Most Popular

SportsMap Emails
Are Awesome

Listen Live

ESPN Houston 97.5 FM
The Astros have their work cut out for them. Composite Getty Image.

Through 20 games, the Houston Astros have managed just six wins and are in last place in the AL West.

Their pitching staff trails only Colorado with a 5.24 ERA and big-money new closer Josh Hader has given up the same number of earned runs in 10 games as he did in 61 last year.

Despite this, these veteran Astros, who have reached the AL Championship Series seven consecutive times, have no doubt they’ll turn things around.

“If there’s a team that can do it, it’s this team,” shortstop Jeremy Peña said.

First-year manager Joe Espada, who was hired in January to replace the retired Dusty Baker, discussed his team’s early struggles.

“It’s not ideal,” he said. “It’s not what we expected, to come out of the shoot playing this type of baseball. But you know what, this is where we’re at and we’ve got to pick it up and play better. That’s just the bottom line.”

Many of Houston’s problems have stemmed from a poor performance by a rotation that has been decimated by injuries. Ace Justin Verlander and fellow starter José Urquidy haven’t pitched this season because of injuries and lefty Framber Valdez made just two starts before landing on the injured list with a sore elbow.

Ronel Blanco, who threw a no-hitter in his season debut April 1, has pitched well and is 2-0 with a 0.86 ERA in three starts this season. Cristian Javier is also off to a good start, going 2-0 with a 1.54 ERA in four starts, but the team has won just two games not started by those two pitchers.

However, Espada wouldn’t blame the rotation for Houston’s current position.

“It’s been a little bit of a roller coaster how we've played overall,” he said. “One day we get good starting pitching, some days we don’t. The middle relief has been better and sometimes it hasn’t been. So, we’ve just got to put it all together and then play more as a team. And once we start doing that, we’ll be in good shape.”

The good news for the Astros is that Verlander will make his season debut Friday night when they open a series at Washington and Valdez should return soon after him.

“Framber and Justin have been a great part of our success in the last few years,” second baseman Jose Altuve said. “So, it’s always good to have those two guys back helping the team. We trust them and I think it’s going to be good.”

Hader signed a five-year, $95 million contract this offseason to give the Astros a shutdown 7-8-9 combination at the back end of their bullpen with Bryan Abreu and Ryan Pressly. But the five-time All-Star is off to a bumpy start.

He allowed four runs in the ninth inning of a 6-1 loss to the Braves on Monday night and has yielded eight earned runs this season after giving up the same number in 56 1/3 innings for San Diego last year.

He was much better Wednesday when he struck out the side in the ninth before the Astros fell to Atlanta in 10 innings for their third straight loss.

Houston’s offense, led by Altuve, Yordan Alvarez and Kyle Tucker, ranks third in the majors with a .268 batting average and is tied for third with 24 homers this season. But the Astros have struggled with runners in scoring position and often failed to get a big hit in close games.

While many of Houston’s hitters have thrived this season, one notable exception is first baseman José Abreu. The 37-year-old, who is in the second year of a three-year, $58.5 million contract, is hitting 0.78 with just one extra-base hit in 16 games, raising questions about why he remains in the lineup every day.

To make matters worse, his error on a routine ground ball in the eighth inning Wednesday helped the Braves tie the game before they won in extra innings.

Espada brushed off criticism of Abreu and said he knows the 2020 AL MVP can break out of his early slump.

“Because (of) history,” Espada said. “The back of his baseball card. He can do it.”

Though things haven’t gone well for the Astros so far, everyone insists there’s no panic in this team which won its second World Series in 2022.

Altuve added that he doesn’t have to say anything to his teammates during this tough time.

“I think they’ve played enough baseball to know how to control themselves and how to come back to the plan we have, which is winning games,” he said.

The clubhouse was quiet and somber Wednesday after the Astros suffered their third series sweep of the season and second at home. While not panicking about the slow start, this team, which has won at least 90 games in each of the last three seasons, is certainly not happy with its record.

“We need to do everything better,” third baseman Alex Bregman said. “I feel like we’re in a lot of games, but we just haven’t found a way to win them. And good teams find a way to win games. So we need to find a way to win games.”

SportsMap Emails
Are Awesome