NBA UPDATE

First look at the Rockets without Harden: Results are not so bad

Chris Paul now has to be The Man for the Rockets. Houston Rockets/Facebook

Wednesday night the Rockets took the court in Orlando with most of the league wondering exactly what a Houston squad would look like with James Harden out of the lineup for the first time this season. Harden is expected to miss an extended period of time, and their matchup with the Magic would provide them an opportunity to adjust to their new rotation before Thursday’s game against a healthy Golden State Warriors team.

A combination of strong defense by the Rockets and poor shooting from the Orlando at the outset contributed to a 25-12 first quarter. Chris Paul was now the undisputed face of the team and he went to work early, setting up open threes and dishing to center Clint Capela for easy inside points.

The real adjustment would take place at the first set of substitutions. Recently acquired shooting guard Gerald Green looked to fill in the sixth man role typically occupied by Eric Gordon, who was thrust into the starting rotation in place of Harden. He delivered, playing stingy defense and shooting 4-4 from three. Briante Weber also made a rare first half appearance, though it remains to be seen whether Weber’s usage has more to do with minutes preservation in lieu of the upcoming Warriors matchup, or this is a legitimate minutes share while Harden is out.

Late defensive switches and sloppy play from the bench allowed the Magic to cut the lead down to single digits late in the second quarter, but a late run by the starters ballooned the lead back to 55-41 by half time.

The Paul to Capela strategy would take over early in the third, and the lead would extend to more than 20 points, essentially putting the game away for good. The mop-up crew was brought in with a little under 5 minutes remaining and the Rockets would close out the game with a 116-98 victory. Green would lead the team with 27 points and 6 rebounds, followed by Capela who shot 8-12 for 21 points and 8 rebounds. Paul would add with 8 points, 7 rebounds, and 13 assists. Six Rockets players finished with double digit scoring performances.

In regards to the new-look Rockets, a few decisions stood out. Weber--typically a garbage time player--ended with 16 minutes. Tarik Black finished with 8 minutes as well. Again, it remains to be seen if this is merely a tactic employed to preserve the regular rotation for Thursday’s matchup with the Warriors or if this is how the minutes will be spread with Harden injured.

Green’s surprisingly effortless transition into a new offense has been a welcome surprise. In four games with the Rockets, he’s averaging 13.8 points per game off the bench, allowing Gordon to operate with the starters without sacrificing scoring off the bench. With small forward Luc Mbah a Moute nearing a return from a shoulder injury, Houston looks poised to withstand the loss of Harden at least for the short term.

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The Astros suffered a heartbreaking loss to the Yankees Thursday. Composite image by Brandon Strange.

After an impressive two-game sweep of the NL-best Mets at home earlier in the week, the Astros took to the road to begin a four-game series with the league-best Yankees on Thursday night. To little surprise, the series started with a bang (no, not a trash can bang) in more ways than one, confirming that this series should be a must-watch this weekend.

New York's comeback proves no lead will be safe

Right from the get-go, the loud Yankee Stadium faithful had their chance to rain boos down on Jose Altuve before showing some pleasure as he led off the series by being hit by a pitch. They were quickly, though only temporarily, quieted as Altuve would come in to score two batters later on a three-run blast by Alex Bregman.

Three-run homers seemed to be a theme, as New York would get one of their own to tie the game off the bat of Giancarlo Stanton to tie the game, then Yordan Alvarez continued his dominant June by pushing the Astros back in front by three with another three-run bomb in the third, making it 6-3. That lead held through to the bottom of the ninth, where instead of holding it, Ryan Pressly issued two walks to set up the fourth homer of the game to tie things again before Aaron Judge would get a walk-off single to complete the impressive comeback.

Not only will we get to sit back and watch the slug-fest between Yordan and Judge this weekend, but it looks like with Alex Bregman swinging well again to round out the top of Houston's order, the Astros may be getting closer to their full power. So far in June, these two teams sit third and fourth in on-base percentage, with the Astros at .351 and the Yankees right behind at .350. That means we should continue to see scoring opportunities on both sides that can tilt momentum one way or the other as these lineups try to battle against the opposing pitcher.

How will the aces fare

Verlander vs. Judge, and Cole vs. Alvarez, need I say more? Although we won't see Justin Verlander go up against Gerrit Cole in the same game in this series (they should go head to head next Thursday, however), they will pitch on back-to-back days, with Houston's ace going Friday night and New York's on Saturday afternoon. Verlander is coming off his worst start of the year, a three and two-thirds inning outing where the White Sox put up seven runs, four earned, against him and knocked him out early to give him his third loss and increased his ERA from 1.94 to 2.30.

The last time he faced the Yankees was in the Bronx in the 2019 playoffs, in ALCS Game 5, where he went seven frames while allowing four runs, all on two homers in the first inning, which is all New York needed to grab the 4-1 victory to make it a 3-2 Houston lead in the series, which the Astros would go on to clinch in Game 6. So, with the double dose of bad taste in his mouth, it will be interesting to see if he can use that as the fuel to get back to the phenomenal form he's had this year or if the Yankees try to jump on him early like they did nearly three years ago.

Cole, meanwhile, is fresh off of two quality starts in a row against the Rays, where he allowed just one run on six hits with nineteen strikeouts over 13.1 innings of work. He's had his share of strife this season, though, including a seven-run shelling by the Twins earlier this month, along with a start in April where he couldn't make it through two innings against the Tigers. He's had success against his former club, most notably a complete-game shutout in Houston last July with twelve K's and holding the Astros to just three hits.

If the series opener was any indication, we are in for the treat of a playoff-caliber matchup, if not a potential ALCS preview that we may see in October. The Yankees showed why they have the best record and are the hottest team in baseball on Thursday night, but the Astros were only a good outing from their closer away from having a relatively lopsided win. The rivalry is real; the competition is close, and we get to enjoy the show.

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