Turbulent Times

Examining how Houston will fare without Russell Westbrook: A Rockets-Thunder series preview

Rockets Mike D'Antoni, James Harden
Composite photo by Jack Brame

When it was first reported that Russell Westbrook would miss at least the first few games of the first round, Rockets fans fell into a panic and self-loathing state. To some extent, the panic is understandable. Having a star player go down with injury days before the playoffs is never a great place to be in. Star players, unlike role players, have qualities and on-court production that are irreplaceable.

The Rockets are also playing a really good first round opponent in the Oklahoma City Thunder. I will give my prediction soon, but this injury just made the series much more like a traditional 4-5 matchup in that it's closer to a toss up now. However, the self-loathing from Rockets fans is probably a good place to draw the line. Houston, even without Russell Westbrook, will still be (and should still be) considered the favorites to win this series.

Prediction:

Rockets in 6

Why?

Part of why playoff basketball is exciting is because it's incredibly sophisticated, matchup-driven, and you can attack a series from a bunch of different angles. However sometimes, and I'm guilty of this too, we overanalyze it. We try and give reasons why we reach certain conclusions beyond what is right in front of our face. Sometimes playoff basketball can be simple.

That's kind of what's happening here. I'm tempted to give you a convoluted explanation as to why I arrived at this prediction, but my answer is quite simple. The Rockets, for at least 36 minutes a game, will have a top five NBA player surrounded by average shooting at four other positions. And the Thunder, as good as they are (and they're quite good), don't have that. The Rockets, in theory, should be good enough to defeat this first round opponent because they have James Harden.

In practice, there are of course a number of factors that could prevent the Rockets from toppling the Thunder. Let's get into that.

1. The minutes without Harden

This is where Houston will miss Westbrook's presence the most. There will be 8 to 12 minutes a game where the Rockets will be on the floor without a dynamic playmaker. The franchise hasn't had to deal with this problem in the playoffs since 2017. As it was then, this will be a glaring issue until it's not.

The Rockets will have to lean on Austin Rivers and Eric Gordon to take on extra ball handling and playmaking responsibility. Rivers has historically thrived with the team in these circumstances. Rivers plays better with the ball in his hands and the Rockets haven't needed him to play like that unless there's an injury. Rivers will likely see a significant uptick in scoring.

Gordon, on the other hand, just returned from an ankle injury and hasn't caught a rhythm shooting the ball from three-point range this entire year (31.6% from deep the season). It's really hard to say what Rockets fans should expect of him come playoff time. As in past years, he is Houston's biggest X-factor going into the playoffs.

In general, expect the Rockets to be in the red when Harden sits. The goal should be as close to neutral minutes as possible. If they can be -4.0 per 100 possessions instead of -11.0 or something like that, that's a huge plus.

2. The rebounding

Already a weak rebounding team (27th in rebound percentage), the Rockets are losing one of their best rebounders in Westbrook. Even though their strategy as a team is to forgo the rebounding battle every night in favor of turnovers and deflections, there's still a limit to how awful you can be on the glass. Players who have a history of being good rebounder (P.J. Tucker, Robert Covington, James Harden, and Jeff Green) will need to help pick up the slack until Westbrook returns.

3. The shooting

On the season, the Rockets are in the bottom third of the league (21st) in three-point percentage. For context, Houston was 12th last year. They have to be at least average to have any chance in this series. A lot of their struggles this year have come from Eric Gordon's struggles, but everywhere else, they really only have two above average shooters (James Harden and Ben McLemore).

As stated earlier, the Rockets should still be favored to win because they have Harden surrounded by shooting. You need both of those elements to beat a team as good as the Thunder. The Rockets could get away with bad shooting in a playoff game before because Russell Westbrook would generate a ton of unlikely points. They don't have that in their back pocket anymore, so every game they lose will most likely be because they shot poorly from beyond the arc.

I used to have a category in these playoffs previews titled "most important stat". It's not necessary for this preview. The most important stat is obviously going to be Houston's three-point percentage.

4. Houston's defense

I often talked about Houston's defense this year as what could propel them into that top tier of title contendership. For the purposes of this series, they really only need to continue being average. James Harden plus shooters will provide a close proximity to what the Rockets were offensively during the regular season, so they don't need to become something they're not (yet). Losing Russell Westbrook may actually help Houston defensively.

If Eric Gordon defends like he has in past playoff series for the Rockets, they only have to account for one sub-par defender in their starting lineup (Harden). The bench is another story, but in totality, it's not hard to see Houston cobbling together an average defense from minutes 1-43 of every game.

The last five minutes of games will be a huge undertaking for the Rockets. The Thunder have a beast of a closing lineup that revolves around their three-guard lineup of Chris Paul, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, and Dennis Schroder. Here are their numbers together for the season:

Offensive RTG: 127.1
Defensive RTG: 98.6
Net RTG: +28.6

These numbers are insane for a group that's played together as much as they have (401 minutes). The Rockets without Westbrook will be tempted to close games with Harden, Gordon, House, Covington, and Tucker. Tucker and Covington are versatile defenders who are capable of defending perimeter players, but they will likely have their hands full with Danilo Gallinari and Steven Adams. This is the central dilemma of Houston's closing lineup against the Thunder.

Defending those three guards will likely be a huge undertaking for Harden, Gordon, and House. Gordon has been a reliable playoff defender, but House and Harden are too inconsistent to leave both out on the floor in these moments. It may be prudent for Houston to swap out House for Austin Rivers when they see Oklahoma City pulling out this lineup. Rivers is a more consistent one-on-one defender against quicker guards and, more importantly, asking one inconsistent defender (Harden) to step up in these moments is more feasible than asking two.

Either way, it's going to be interesting to see how Houston fares defensively against an equally guard heavy team.

There's no doubt that the Rockets are in a tough spot. If it were up to them, they would be at full health playing the Utah Jazz in round one. Things didn't go their way and they're here now. The Thunder are better and they have a leg up health-wise. With that said, Houston should still be favored to win this series.

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We're not saying this is the greatest photo of Alex Bregman ever…but we're not saying it's not. Photo by Bread & Water Productions.

Only Alex Bregman, his tireless crew (we’re looking at you, Tyler Straub), and his endless business and charity interests could make Major League Baseball’s quiet offseason seem so 24/7.

The latest: Wild Sol, the spicy and saucy new Southwest food brand that Alex and his wife Reagan have created — and just toasted with a totally fire launch party at EaDo hotspot Chapman & Kirby.

Alex and Reagan welcomed a star-studded, invite-only list of party people to celebrate the Wild Sol official launch and sample some savory — and spirited, literally — salsas (more on the “spirited” part in a moment). The party also saluted the Wild Sol team who have been working for more than a year on the launch: Laurice Howard, Reagan’s mother (and an Instagram treasure); the aforementioned Tyler Straub (whom we here at CultureMap have dubbed “Tyler the Creator”); Michael Posey, and Adrienne Price.

While hot Houston DJ Mr Rogers spun his party-perfect beats, the VIP crowd sampled Wild Sol’s line of Hot, Mild, Salsa Verde, and Mango Habanero salsas. Flecha Azul Tequilaprovided the perfect way to cool off from the spicy Mango Habanero and Hot salsas. Considered the fastest growing additive-free, ultra-premium tequila in the world, Flecha Azul was founded by A-list friend of the Bregmans — Mark Wahlberg — along with his partners Aron Marquez, and Abraham Ancer.

A Sol-powered party

Astros star shortstop Jeremy Peña (aka La Torrenta) hit the party. Photo by Bread & Water Productions.

As for the crowd, it was a family affair and a who’s-who list of sports celebs. Guests included Alex’s mother, Jackie De Oliveira Bregman; and Reagan’s parents, Laurice and Grant Howard, with her brother Kyle Howard. Other guests included Flecha Azul Tequila founder Aron Marquez; Houston Astros star shortstop Jeremy Peña; Astros business development director Kyle McLaughlin; Astros’ reporter Julia Morales Clark and husband Matt Clark; Adrienne and Jared Crane; rap legends Slim Thug and Paul Wall (who attended with his wife, Crystal); Warren Moon; former NFL star Adrian Peterson and his wife, Ashley; Madison Straub; Jim “Mattress Mack” McIngvale; former Houston Texans star Chester Pitts; Madelyn Payne; Haleigh Broucher; and Southern songstress Lenora and her fiancé Jarren Small.

The normally Navy SEAL-composed Alex Bregman tore it up on the dance floor and posed for an epic photo with his beloved Mom and with Paul Wall and Straub — making us wish they three would start a hip-hop act.

“I am so grateful for all of our friends and family who showed up to support,” said Alex Bregman of the party. “We’ve got great momentum and we’re looking forward to taking this to the next level.”

A little about the new Wild Sol salsas: each brings the heat and is made with an actual splash of Flecha Azul tequilas. Here’s the Wild Sol starting lineup:

Ladies and gentlemen, your Wild Sol starting lineup. Photo by Bread & Water Productions.

Hot Salsa: robust and spiced with dried chilies that really bring the heat; made with a splash of Flecha Azul Blanco Tequila

Mild Salsa: rich with limes, tomatoes, and dried chilies for a touch of heat; made with a splash of Flecha Azul Blanco Tequila

Salsa Verde: herby and smokey with tomatillos and vibrant serrano peppers; made with a splash of Los Coyotes Mezcal

Mango Habanero Salsa: sweet up front with fresh mangos and a punch of fiery habañeros; made with a splash of Flecha Azul Reposado Tequila

“We are excited to collaborate with our friends at Wild Sol,” said Flecha Azul Tequila founder Marquez. “Over the last year, I received samples of recipes, and their desire to produce a salsa that is unique and spirited shines through. You can’t have the best spirited salsa if you are not using the best tequila.”

No, you can’t, Aron. Those on the hunt for Wild Sol’s salsas can find it online at WildSol.co. — expect even more products this year. Houston shoppers can also look forward to Wild Sol on H-E-B and Kroger shelves in the coming months, the company promises. Score the Flecha Azul tequila line at local Spec’s, Total Wine & More, or online.

Breggy talks his bomb offseason

Bregman poses with his manager Tyler Straub just before he headed back to Phoenix after attending Astros Fan Fest. Photo by Steven Devadanam.

As we mentioned, few — if any — MLB stars have put in the work like Alex Bregman this offseason — on and off the field. Just how committed is the All-Star third baseman? In January, he flew in from Phoenix, where he’s been training, just to attend the Astros Fan Fest — only to hop a flight immediately after the event.

Seriously, does he sleep?

“Oh yeah,” Bregman told us at the event. “Sleep is the key. The sleep’s where you recover — you gotta sleep. I feel like that’s the best form of recovery for any athlete. So, we try to sleep eight to 10 hours a night.” When we jokingly asked if the headline is that Baby Knox (his son) is letting him sleep eight to 10 hours a night, Bregman chuckled.

“Oh, Knox sleeps — Knox might sleep 12 hours himself. He’s growing so much and I think it’s because he sleeps so well.”

Bregman, who (somehow) turns 30 on March 30, is well aware of all the speculation as to whether he’ll extend with the Astros, like his teammate José Altuve. He revealed good news for his fans who are waiting for an epic season.

Big things ahead

“I feel better than I’ve ever felt,” he told us. “I feel younger than I’ve ever felt. I feel more athletic than I’ve ever felt. I’m really looking forward to having a really good year.”

He’s also working on every part of his game as he readies for another World Series run, and is ready to play ball —as he works on every part of his game. “I think it’s every single aspect of the game, trying to get a little bit better,” he said. “This offseason’s been really hitting-focused and it’s been fantastic. I cannot even tell you how excited I am to get down to Florida and get going.”

We also caught up with Bregman at the annual Cactus Jack Celebrity Softball Tournament put on by Travis Scott this past week, where he hit the field with a host of all stars and celebrities. Having just headed up his Bregman Cares Classic tournament at Sugar Land’s Constellation Field, a ball game for a special cause meant that much more to him.

“It means so much,” he told us before the game. “Being able to help any community is such an honor.”

We also asked Bregman about his Super Bowl experience, where he partied with Houston Texans superstar quarterback C.J. Stroud and newly minted NFL Hall of Famer Andre Johnson, the first Texan to be inducted into the halls of Canton, Ohio.

“It was an honor to be able to hang with him and Andre,” Bregman added, “and celebrate their amazing seasons.”

And we’re ready to celebrate an amazing Bregman season, too.

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