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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McCullers Jr. out-pitched friend and former teammate Dallas Keuchel on Father's Day. Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

With three impressive wins to start this series against the once AL-leading Chicago White Sox, Houston tried to extend their winning streak to seven games and finish a four-game sweep on Father's Day. Thanks to a big inning against former-Astro Dallas Keuchel, they would win to keep their hot streak going.

Final Score: Astros 8, White Sox 2

Astros' Record: 43-28, first in the AL West

Winning Pitcher: Lance McCullers Jr. (4-1)

Losing Pitcher: Dallas Keuchel (6-2)

Rough return to Houston for Keuchel

In his first game against his old squad, Dallas Keuchel would not have a memorable start on the mound for Chicago. Houston made him labor in the first inning, loading the bases though they only came away with one run on an RBI single by Abraham Toro, grabbing the early 1-0 lead. After going down 1-2-3 in the second, they got after Keuchel again in the third.

They ended up batting around against him that inning, including a two-RBI single by Yordan Alvarez, RBI double by Taylor Jones, and bases-loaded RBI-walk by Jose Altuve, which would end Keuchel's day very early and leave the bases juiced. Chicago's bullpen would walk another batter to give Keuchel another earned run, making it a 6-2 game, with all six going against the former Houston ace. Carlos Correa extended the lead to five runs in the next inning, hitting a leadoff solo home run to make it 7-2.

McCullers Jr. gives up two over six

That gave Lance McCullers Jr. a nice lead to work with, and he managed it well. He had one big mistake in the early goings of the game, giving up a one-out single in the second to set up a two-run home run, which at the time put Chicago in front 2-1 before Houston's offense came alive. He followed that up with four scoreless innings, erasing a walk in each with some tremendous defense behind him—his final line: 6.0 IP, 2 H, 2 ER, 4 BB, 4 K, 1 HR, 94 P.

Astros complete the sweep to jump on top of the standings

Still a six-run game in the top of the seventh, Blake Taylor entered as the first reliever out of Houston's bullpen, tossing a 1-2-3 frame. He continued in the top of the eighth, getting two strikeouts in another scoreless inning. The 8-2 score would go final as Ralph Garza Jr. would enter as the third pitcher of the day to wrap things up with a scoreless top of the ninth to finish the four-game sweep. The win, their seventh straight, paired with an Oakland loss earlier in the afternoon, moves Houston into the top spot in the AL West based on winning percentage.

Up Next: This long stretch of consecutive games continues on Monday in Baltimore, as the Astros pick up a seven-game road trip starting with a three-game set against Baltimore getting underway at 6:05 PM Central. Jake Odorizzi (1-3, 5.68 ERA) will get the start for Houston, going opposite of Keegan Akin (0-2, 5.76 ERA) for the Orioles.

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