WESTERN CONFERENCE FINALS

Fred Faour: 5 quick thoughts on the Rockets' amazing Game 5 win over the Warriors

Fred Faour: 5 quick thoughts on the Rockets' amazing Game 5 win over the Warriors
Chris Paul (left) was awesome. James Harden (right) was not. Tim Warren/Getty Images

The Rockets are one game away from the NBA Finals. They grinded out an ugly, clutch 98-94 win over the Warriors to take a 3-2 series lead. They now have two shots to make it to the Finals. They did not play well on offense in Game 5, but their defense was terrific. It was a great win, especially considering the emotional start with Santa Fe High school in the house. Here are five quick thoughts on an amazing win:

1) Doing it with defense: The Rockets forced 16 turnovers and for the fifth time in the series, the team that won the turnover battle won the game. As in Game 4, the Rockets offense faltered down the stretch, but the defense locked it down. People look to their offense, but let's give the Rockets credit for playing fantastic defense, especially in the last two games. They have held the Warriors under 100 points in two straight games, which is no small feat.

2) Where is the MVP? James Harden had a terrible shooting game. He did his best to grind out some points at the line and on drives, but was 0-for-11 on 3s. He finished with just 19 points on 5 of 21 shooting. That the Rockets won the game despite that was a credit to just how gritty this team actually played. If the MVP can show up one of the next two games, the Rockets are going to the NBA Finals. It would help if he could get some calls. The Warriors seem to get the questionable calls, but Harden did not. If he does...

3) Again, Chris Paul: Paul had a rough first half, but for the second game in a row, he was the best player on the Rockets in the second half. After scoring two in the first, he had 18 in the second. The past two games show why the Rockets went all-in to get him. The biggest concern was Paul limped off in the fourth with an apparent hamstring injury. Without him they have no chance.

4) How good is Kevin Durant? He did not have his best shooting game, but without him the Warriors would have been toast. Considering the Warriors got 20-plus point games from Durant (29), Steph Curry (22) and Klay Thompson (23) and still lost says something about the Rockets. Thompson was especially good, shooting 8-of-14. But everything was difficult and contested, and the Warriors could not get it done.

5) The X-factor: Eric Gordon had a team-high 24, but he did it on just 6 of 15 shooting, 3 of 10 on 3s. He did most of his damage at the line, going 9 of 10. Without him, however, the Rockets do not win this. 

The bottom line: The Rockets need one win to go to the Finals. If you look at pure stats, they should not have won this game. But they gutted it out, played great defense, looked the Warriors in the eye and made them blink. They showed heart. If Paul can't play going forward, they are in trouble. But at some point, doesn't the MVP show up? We shall see. Thursday's win was huge.

 

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Astros on the hunt. Composite Getty Image.

With the Astros' surge from 10 games out of first place to within two games of Seattle, catching and going past the Mariners has naturally become the top objective. It's no given to happen but it's right there. In the final series ahead of the All-Star break, while the Mariners are in the midst of four games with the lowly Angels, the last two World Series champions renew (un)pleasantries at Minute Maid Park.

The Astros enter the weekend five games ahead of the Rangers. They lead the season series with the reigning champs four wins to three. While the Astros can't quite finish off the Arlingtonians by sweeping them in this three game set, shoving them eight games back (even further back of Seattle and the current Wild Card teams) and clinching the tiebreaker would seem close to a death blow. Taking two out of three would be fine for the Astros. If the Rangers win the series, they are clearly still in the American League West and Wild Card races coming out of the All-Star break.

Last year the Rangers had the best offense in the AL. So far in 2024 they rank a mediocre eighth in runs per game. Nathaniel Lowe is the lone Ranger (get it?!?) regular playing as well as he did last season. Corey Seager has been fine but not at the MVP runner-up level of last year. Marcus Semien is notably down, as is 2023 ALCS Astros-obliterater Adolis Garcia. Stud 2023 rookie Josh Jung has been out with a broken wrist since ex-Astro Phil Maton hit him with a pitch in the fourth game of this season, though fill-in third baseman Josh Smith has been the Rangers' best player. 21-year-old late season phenom Evan Carter largely stunk the first two months this season and has been out since late May with a back injury. Repeating is hard, never harder than it is now. Hence no Major League Baseball has done it since the Yankees won three straight World Series 1998-2000.

Chasing down the Division at a crazy clip

From the abyss of their 7-19 start, the Astros sweep over the Marlins clinched a winning record at the break with them at 49-44. Heading into the Texas matchup the Astros have won at a .627 clip since they were 7-19. A full season of .627 ball wins 101 games. If the Astros win at a .627 rate the rest of the way they'll finish with 92 wins, almost certainly enough to secure a postseason slot and likely enough to win the West. Expecting .627 the rest of the way is ambitious.

With it fairly clear that Lance McCullers is highly unlikely to contribute anything after his latest recovery setback, and Luis Garcia a major question mark, what Justin Verlander has left in 2024 grows more important. With the way the Astros often dissemble or poorly forecast when discussing injuries, for all we know Verlander could be cooked. Inside three weeks to the trade deadline, General Manager Dana Brown can't be thinking a back end of the rotation comprised of Spencer Arrighetti and Jake Bloss should be good enough. The Astros have 66 games to play after the All-Star break, including separate stretches with games on 18 and 16 consecutive days.

All-Star MIAs

Viewership for Tuesday's All-Star game at Globe Life Field in Arlington will be pretty, pretty, pretty low in Houston. One, All-Star Game ratings are pitiful every year compared to where they used to be. Two, the Astros could be down to zero representatives at Tuesday's showcase. Kyle Tucker was rightfully named a reserve but had no shot at playing as he continues the loooong recovery from a bone bruise (or worse) suffered June 3. Being named an All-Star for a ninth time was enough for Jose Altuve. He opts out of spending unnecessary time in Texas Rangers territory citing a sore wrist. This despite Altuve playing four games in a row since sitting out the day after he was plunked and highly likely to play in all three games versus the Rangers this weekend. Yordan Alvarez exiting Wednesday's rout of the Marlins with hip discomfort and then missing Thursday's game seem clear reasons for him to skip, though he has indicated thus far he intends to take part. Yordan is the most essential lineup component to the Astros' hopes of making an eighth straight playoff appearance.

Ronel Blanco should have made the American League squad on performance, but pretty obviously his 10 game illegal substance use suspension was held against him. As it works out, Blanco will pitch Sunday in the last game before the break which would render him unavailable for the All-Star Game anyway. Blanco is eligible to pitch, but given the career high-shattering innings workload Blanco is headed for, no way the Astros want him on the mound Tuesday. Just last year the Astros kept Framber Valdez from pitching in the game.

While waiting, and waiting, and waiting on Tucker's return, the Astros have also been waiting on Chas McCormick to get back to something even faintly resembling the hitter he was last year. McCormick routinely looks lost at the plate. He has four hits (all singles) in his last 32 at bats with his season OPS pitiful at .572. During the break the Astros should seriously weigh sending McCormick to AAA Sugar Land and giving Pedro Leon a try in a job share with Joey Loperfido.

*Catch our weekly Stone Cold ‘Stros podcast. Brandon Strange, Josh Jordan, and I discuss varied Astros topics. The first post for the week generally goes up Monday afternoon (second part released Tuesday) via The SportsMap HOU YouTube channel or listen to episodes in their entirety at Apple, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.

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