Slowly, but surely

Eric Gordon "nowhere near" himself yet, but making strides

Jonathan Daniel

If you watched Eric Gordon in the two games since he's returned to Houston's rotation, you would think he's back to the player he was two years ago. Gordon is averaging 16.0 points per game on 52.6 percent shooting from the field and more importantly, 58.3 percent from three-point range. Prior to his right knee arthroscopy, Gordon was averaging 10.9 points per game on 30.9 percent shooting from the field and 28.4 percent shooting from three-point range. However, Gordon insists that he still has a long way to go until he feels like himself again.

"I'm not there yet,'' said Gordon at practice Thursday. "I'm getting there, but I'm nowhere near there. A few weeks, maybe a month, and I'll be at that point."

The Rockets approached Gordon's situation delicately after the surgery and were really cautious with bringing him back. Gordon could be seen traveling with the Rockets as early as a couple weeks ago and had started to ramp up his workouts with assistant coach John Lucas. There was serious speculation about Gordon returning on Christmas Day, but the Rockets had him return four days later against the New Orleans Pelicans and with a 25 minute restriction. While Gordon had worked on conditioning during his rehab, there's nothing that properly simulates the change of speed and direction in an NBA game.

"All my athleticism and explosiveness [is not there yet]," said Gordon. "I just have to continue to get in better conditioning, because it's hard to condition outside of the game, because the game is a lot harder. As time goes on, it's going to get better and better."

Before the surgery, unbeknownst to most, Gordon was dealing with significant knee pain that had gone on for months. Gordon didn't believe his knee would be as big of an issue going into this season and elected not to pursue surgery. However, after dealing with pain again at the beginning of the season and an MRI in November, it was revealed that Gordon had a piece of debris in his right knee that ultimately led to him getting the arthroscopy. Gordon would go on to miss the next 22 games, but he says the pain that once existed in his knee is gone now.

"Oh yeah, for sure," said Gordon when asked if the knee pain had subsided. "I don't really deal with that [anymore]. I just got to continue strengthening my legs and continue to get back in better shape and things will be much easier."

With teams trapping James Harden the way that they have the past couple months, the Rockets have been chomping at the bit for Gordon's return. Gordon adds a spacing element that makes the Rockets nearly indefensible if a second defender is going to double Harden. Even when Russell Westbrook's defender is cheating off him, Westbrook's drives to the rim collapse the entire defense to create several uncontested three-pointers for shooters like Gordon.

"He'll add a whole nother dimension," said Mike D'Antoni at practice. "It makes it a lot easier on everybody. [It's] another guy who can either iso or go through what we do. He spreads the floor even more than what we're spread."

An underrated dimension of Gordon's return that the Rockets have craved is his point of attack defense. When the Rockets traded Chris Paul for Russell Westbrook, they were trading their best point-of-attack defender and putting more of an onus on guys like Eric Gordon and Austin Rivers to pick up the slack. Last season, Gordon was the primary defender Houston used on star guard Donovan Mitchell in the playoffs and it worked to a high degree of success. Mitchell was limited to 21.4 points, 5.0 rebounds, 3.2 assists, and 4.2 turnovers on a putrid 43.2 true shooting percentage.

"Defensively, nobody talks about him," said D'Antoni. "He's one of our best defenders on-ball and if he gets switched off, he can guard bigs."

The numbers also back up Gordon's defensive ability. The Rockets have been better defensively with Gordon on the floor as opposed to him on the bench every season he's been in Houston. In Houston's best defensive season (2017-18), Gordon had a nearly identical defensive rating (103.5) to that of Chris Paul (103.3) and P.J. Tucker (103.4). He also had a better defensive rating than Clint Capela (104.9) and Trevor Ariza (105.6).

With Houston struggling to crack the top 10 defenses in the NBA (currently 17th), Gordon has the potential to provide a boost in that he can take away minutes from Rockets players that have been negative defenders this season (Ben McLemore and Russell Westbrook specifically).

There's also something about having distance from a team and seeing where you can contribute once you do inevitably return. Gordon is someone who's been with this core group (other than Russell Westbrook) for a few years now and believes he can plug in holes that have existed for Houston this season. The Rockets have been a team this year that have bled leads, specifically when James Harden sits. Gordon, who will come off the bench for Houston, believes he can bolster that second unit and add to the consistency

"With me, I think I compliment everybody on the team," said Gordon "It's good that we've been winning. We still have highs and lows within a game where we'll have a big lead and other teams come back. We got to learn how to keep big leads throughout a game."

Gordon obviously won't shoot above fifty percent from beyond the arc all season, but Houston essentially added a talented swingman to a team that went 15-7 in his absence. It will be interesting to see if Gordon can help Houston elevate to a higher level on both ends of the floor. The Rockets certainly welcome his return.

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Houston dropped two of three

Astros drop series finale to Oakland, A's win series

Jose Urquidy couldn't hold Oakland back on Saturday. Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

With Oakland finally ending their drought against the Astros on Friday night to split the first two games of the series, and with the Angels staying in step with them as both teams started the day 6-2, the Astros needed a win to keep momentum in their favor on Saturday.

Instead, Oakland would outslug Houston once again to take the series finale and take the series win. The loss moves Houston to 6-3 and down to second place, at least for now, until the 6-2 Angels complete their game on Saturday evening.

Final Score: A's 7, Astros 3

Astros' Record: 6-3, second in AL West

Winning Pitcher: Frankie Montas (1-1)

Losing Pitcher: Jose Urquidy (0-1)

Urquidy gives up four over six

Much like the night before, Oakland was able to bring in runs against Houston's starter, this time Jose Urquidy, Saturday afternoon in their second time through the order. Their first time through, Urquidy was cruising, allowing just one baserunner in the first three innings on a single in the top of the third.

Things shifted in the top of the fourth, with the A's getting back-to-back singles to set the stage for a two-run frame with dual RBI-singles to take a 2-0 lead. Oakland doubled that in the fifth, getting a two-out single to set up a two-run homer by Ramon Laureano to make it 4-0. Urquidy would go on to finish six innings, but with no run support to that point, would leave in line for the loss. His final line: 6.0 IP, 7 H, 4 R, 4 ER, 0 BB, 7 K, 93 P.

A's pad their lead before Houston gets on the board

Meanwhile, although getting five hits, the Astros could not get anything on the board against Frankie Montas through six innings. Brandon Bielak took over out of the bullpen for Urquidy in the top of the seventh, but after loading the bases, he would allow a dagger two-RBI single to make it a 6-0 deficit for Houston.

With Montas starting the seventh looking to face a batter or two before Oakland moved to their bullpen, Kyle Tucker would finally get Houston on the board with a leadoff solo home run, cutting the lead to 6-1 and ending Montas' day. Houston would get a two-out rally going, with an RBI-double by Jose Altuve followed by an RBI-triple by Michael Brantley to make it a three-run game at 6-3.

Oakland takes the series win

Ryne Stanek tried to keep it a three-run game and give the Astros a chance to stay in it in the top of the eighth but instead would give up a two-out solo home run to push Oakland's lead back to four. That 7-3 score would go final as Houston would go scoreless in the eighth and ninth.

Up Next: Houston will have a day off on Sunday before continuing this homestand Monday night by welcoming in Detroit and former manager A.J. Hinch for three games. In the series opener, the Tigers will send young star Casey Mize (0-0, 2.25 ERA) to the mound, while the Astros will get another start by Zack Greinke (1-0, 1.38 ERA).

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