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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Houston now focused on postseason

Altuve and Correa homer, Astros drop final regular-season game

Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images

With no playoff impact at stake if the Astros won or lost the game, Houston took Sunday's final regular-season game as a chance to get their lineup a few more at-bats before shifting focus to Tuesday's first game of the post-season. Here is a quick recap of the game against the Rangers:

Final Score: Rangers 8, Astros 4.

Record: 29-31, second in the AL West.

Winning pitcher: Wes Benjamin (2-1, 4.84 ERA).

Losing pitcher: Chase De Jong (0-1, 14.73 ERA).

Houston's main bats get a final tune-up

Knowing they'd only have a couple of at-bats to work with, some of Houston's big bats took advantage, starting with Jose Altuve. He crushed a pitch in the top of the first, a solo homer to put the Astros in front 1-0. After the Rangers tied the game 1-1 in the bottom of the second, Altuve started the third with a walk before moving to third base on a Michael Brantley single, which improved Brantley's season average to .300.

Aledmys Diaz would pick up the RBI on a groundout to score Altuve, putting Houston back in front 2-1. In Correa's last at-bat in the top of the fourth, he extended the lead to 3-1 with a solo home run of his own.

Rangers hand Astros a loss to end the regular season

After getting the early run against Chase De Jong, the Rangers would put together a big inning against him in the fourth. After two one-out singles, Rougned Odor would give Texas their first lead of the day on a three-run homer to make it 4-3.

De Jong would continue to struggle in the inning, getting just one more out while loading the bases, prompting a move to the bullpen to bring in Nivaldo Rodriguez to try and eat up more innings. The Rangers greeted him with a two-RBI single to extend their lead to 6-3 before ending the fourth. Odor would hit his second home run of the game in the bottom of the fifth, a solo shot to make it a four-run lead at 7-3.

Rodriguez allowed another run in the bottom of the seventh, making it 8-3. Diaz, who drove in a run earlier, would account for another RBI in the top of the eighth, getting Houston's third solo homer of the day. That would make it an 8-4 game, which would go final as the Rangers would win the regular season's last game.

Up Next: Houston's first game of the playoffs will be on Tuesday, with the start time and opponent TBD while the rest of today's games wrap up, and the schedule is announced. Regardless, the Astros are expected to begin that best-of-three series with Zack Greinke (3-3, 4.03 ERA).

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