NBA PLAYOFFS

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.

 

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The clock is ticking. Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

If he is indeed to become an ex-Astro George Springer can officially sign with his new team starting at four PM Houston time this Sunday. Michael Brantley the same. All free agents can sign contracts starting Sunday afternoon. If the die isn't cast that Springer is leaving, it certainly feels like his renewing vows with the Astros would be an upset.

The Astros will make Springer a 18.9 million dollar qualifying offer for 2021. He will of course reject that because contract offers of at least five years and over 100 million dollars likely await. Should Springer move on the Astros would then get a compensatory draft pick. Brantley won't get anything in close range of Springer's haul-to-be but still should at least get multiyear offers. The Astros should make the qualifying offer to Brantley (if they don't they forfeit any compensation for his departure). If they don't out of fear that he'd accept the one-year deal, the Astros would look lame. I don't think it comes to that. Losing Springer would be a huge blow on multiple levels, but if somehow they were to keep Brantley while getting back Yordan Alvarez at even 80 percent of his rookie performance level the Astros' lineup would look to be in decent shape.

With MLB's economic outlook shaky for 2021, it's unreasonable to say Jim Crane and his partners should give Springer whatever he wants. A six or seven year megadollar contract for a 31-year-old player with some durability questions on his resume is an iffy proposition. At the same time, the Astros have been quite profitable in recent years (before 2020), and Crane said over the summer the Astros were positioned to be "aggressive, whatever the market looks like." 13 million Josh Reddick dollars are off the books for 2021, 10 mil of Roberto Osuna is gone. After next year more than 57 mil of Justin Verlander and Zack Greinke clear.

MLB's postseason awards will be doled out over the next couple weeks but for the first time in years the Astros don't have a credible candidate for any of the big ones (MVP, Cy Young, Rookie of the Year, Manager of the Year). The Astros do have three American League Gold Glove finalists. I think Carlos Correa wins the shortstop honor. Correa had a weak regular season at the plate but his defense was stellar, plus the two guys who divvied up the last four AL SS Gold Gloves (Francisco Lindor and Andrelton Simmons) had down seasons and aren't finalists. Quick: name the teams of fellow finalists J.P. Crawford and Niko Goodrum. Hard to see either winning over Correa. Yuli Gurriel and Kyle Tucker were also named top three at their positions. For the first time the finalist selections were driven entirely by stats and analytics.

Big week for the Rockets

With the Rockets settling on Stephen Silas as their new Head Coach, that hire coupled with the in house promotion of Rafael Stone to General Manager makes it appear as though owner Tilman Fertitta is doing more things on the cheap. The NBA economic environment is challenging and huge portions of the rest of Fertitta's portfolio are submerged in a COVID-driven bloodbath. Silas has paid his dues for a good while and most recently worked under the outstanding Rick Carlisle in Dallas. He has earned a lead chair opportunity. But with no prior head coaching experience and no bidding war for his services, Silas signs on at a much lower rate than, say, Jeff Van Gundy would have commanded. Former head coaches (and former Rockets' player rivals of the 90s) Jeff Hornacek and Nate McMillan would make for two strong Silas assistants. From their playing days if you combined Hornacek's offense and McMillan's defense into one player you'd have one of the top 20 or so greatest guards in NBA history.

Silas and Stone take the reins at a challenging time for the Rockets with their messy salary cap sheet, reduced draft capital, and one of the oldest core player groups in the league. Polite public statements aside, it's part of why Daryl Morey left. Maybe Mike D'Antoni too though that seemed more about feeling disrespected by the lack of a contract extension before this past season. D'Antoni may have overplayed his hand since he did not get fill any of the coaching vacancies elsewhere in the NBA. Only Oklahoma City remains open, and D'Antoni has gotten no run there.

Buzzer Beaters:

1. It seems sadly appropriate that the first meaningful positive in the Texans' 2020 season came in form of a COVID test result.

2. If we all commit to getting through it together, I think we can get by without a Texans' game this weekend. Remember, it's their open week, not a bye!

3. One hit wonder goodbye songs: Bronze-Terry Jacks "Seasons in the Sun" Silver-Norman Greenbaum "Spirit In The Sky" Gold-Steam "Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye"

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