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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Boston's two grand slams in the first two innings were too much for Houston to overcome in ALCS Game 2. Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

After a win in ALCS Game 1 that had the prototypical fingerprints of this Astros team all over it, Houston returned to Minute Maid Park on Saturday, hoping to take a dominant 2-0 series lead if they could grab another victory. The Red Sox dashed those hopes very early, though, scoring eight runs across the first two innings to build the lead they would hold on to even the series.

Final Score: Boston 9, Astros 5

ALCS Series (Best of Seven): tied 1-1

Winning Pitcher: Nathan Eovaldi

Losing Pitcher: Luis Garcia

Houston met with disaster to start Game 2

You couldn't have drawn up a much better start for the Red Sox or a worse one for the Astros in Saturday's ALCS Game 2. Luis Garcia met early disaster in the top of the first inning, allowing a leadoff double, then got two outs while issuing two walks to load the bases. That brought up Boston's designated hitter, J.D. Martinez, to the plate, and he delivered a crushing blow to Houston, launching a grand slam to put the Red Sox up 4-0 before Houston could even get to the plate.

After a scoreless bottom of the inning by his offense, things got worse for Garcia in the top of the second, as after issuing a four-pitch walk to start the frame, he would become the center of a meeting at the mound with trainers, ultimately leaving the game with an injury. Houston opted to bring in Jake Odorizzi for the emergency call to the bullpen, but things did not start well for him either. He would put two of his own batters on base with two singles, then gave up the second grand slam in as many innings, this one to Rafael Devers to double Boston's lead to 8-0, doubling down on Houston's disastrous start to the game.

Odorizzi rebounded with a 1-2-3 third, but with one out in the top of the fourth allowed a solo homer to Kiké Hernández, his third homer of the series so far. He would still get the job done of eating up a few innings, finishing the fourth, and retiring Boston in order in the fifth, giving Houston just four more innings to cover with the rest of their relievers.

Astros get a few runs back

Over that span, Houston did trim the lead by three runs, getting an RBI double by Kyle Tucker and a two-RBI single by Yuli Gurriel in the bottom of the fourth, making it a six-run game at 9-3. Their next reliever was Blake Taylor in the top of the sixth, and he would keep the score where it stood by sitting down the three batters he faced that frame.

The Astros threatened again in the bottom of the sixth, getting two singles to put two aboard, but would come out empty, sending the game on to the seventh, where Taylor would remain on the mound. He faced three more batters, getting two out while allowing a single before Yimi Garcia would come in to get the third out.

Red Sox even the series as it shifts to Boston

Garcia returned in the top of the eighth, getting through that inning despite a walk and hit by pitch, stranding both runners. Boston's bullpen kept Houston from getting any closer in the bottom of the eighth, then Ryne Stanek came in for the Astros in the top of the ninth. Stanek allowed a leadoff double, but with a groundout and double play, held the score at 9-3. Yuli Gurriel and Jason Castro did their part to keep the Astros alive in the bottom of the ninth, each hitting solo homers to make it 9-5, but that's as close as they'd come, dropping Game 2 to tie the series at one game apiece.

Up Next: The ALCS now moves to Boston for the next three games after a day off on Sunday, with Game 3 on Monday at 7:08 PM Central. While the Astros have named Jose Urquidy as their starter, the Red Sox have not yet determined theirs.

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