Chris Paul and the Rockets are moving on. Tim Warner/Getty Images
Finally, the preliminaries are over. The series we have been waiting for all year is finally upon us. The Rockets took care of business at Toyota Center on Tuesday, beating Utah 112-102 to close out the series four games to one and move on to the Western Conference Finals, where a date with Golden State awaits. There will be ample time to break down that series, but here are five quick thoughts on the Rockets series-clinching win over the Jazz:
1) The late quick strike: The Rockets had one of their patented quick hit runs to end the first half and turned a tight game into some breathing room with a 9-2 burst. The game was 45-44 Rockets with under a minute left, but Chris Paul nailed a pair of 3s, Rudy Gobert slowed things with a dunk and then P.J. Tucker hit a 3 to end the half. The Rockets made only five 3s the entire half -- three coming in the last minute. It was vintage Rockets and set the tone for the second half. Paul led the half with 15 points on 5 of 9 shooting and added six assists. James Harden struggled with nine points on 3 of 9 shooting and three ugly turnovers. But even with that, the last minute put the Rockets in a good position, a place they needed to be considering how bad they were in the third quarter.
2) Emerging star: Jazz rookie Donovan Mitchell had a forgettable first half with just two points. But he exploded for 22 in the third quarter, giving the Jazz a 78-75 lead. Unfortunately, that would be all he would contribute, limping off the court in the fourth quarter with his 24 points.
3) Playoff Paul? Not so much. Paul was outstanding throughout the game. It was critical for the Rockets, considering how fellow star Harden was out of sync. Paul had a career playoff high with 41 points and was a monster down the stretch. He had said after the Game 4 win he had "been up 3-1 before." He made sure there would be no chance of a repeat of that series, where his Clippers lost to the Rockets. Paul carried the Rockets to their second Western Conference Final in four years, and the first of Paul's career. He threw in 10 assists, six rebounds, did not turn the ball over and hit 8 of 10 3s. Harden struggled with 7-of-22 shooting, just 18 points and 1 of 7 on 3s, so Paul's output was critical.
4) Capping it off: Clint Capela did not do much offensively, and he managed only five rebounds. But he also had five blocks and was active leading the Houston defense, a big reason for the win.
5) Surprise, surprise: With Harden and Eric Gordon (5 points, 2 of 8) struggling, the Rockets got timely baskets from P.J. Tucker (19 points, 5 of 7 on 3-pointers) and Gerald Green (8 points in 13 minutes). Those two helped overcome the other players' struggles.
Obviously, the Warriors series is what everyone will point to, but let's not lose sight of the fact that the Rockets are in the Western Conference Finals again and have had an outstanding year. Being the top seed guarantees you nothing -- just ask Toronto. It has been a hell of a run, and the Rockets have earned this opportunity to take on the defending champs with a spot in the Finals on the line. Yes, they will have to play much better, but there is no reason to think they won't.
While most of the Astros roster is returning for the 2024 season, there are still some areas of uncertainty for the club. Astros manager Joe Espada will have some tough decisions to make in his first season managing the team.
The Astros infield is set, so we know who will be playing on a nightly basis, assuming health. The outfield is where things get tricky. Espada told the Houston Chronicle last week that he hopes to play Alvarez more in left field this season, which would open up the DH spot for Chas McCormick and players he would like to rest while keeping their bat in the lineup (Yainer Diaz, Jose Altuve, etc).
Astros GM Dana Brown would like to see if Jake Meyers can hit well enough to play regularly in center field. This is a team that stresses defense, which Meyers provides. But if defense is the top priority, wouldn't that mean Chas McCormick should play left field with Yordan Alvarez hitting in the DH spot?
Certainly, there will be nights when that's the case. The reality of the situation is all these guys are going to play, but how much and where is yet to be seen.
Houston plays 20 games in 21 days to start the season, so it's not going to take long to see if Meyers is providing enough offense to play regularly. If we get into the month of May and Meyers is an offensive liability in the lineup, we won't be surprised if his playing time starts to decrease. But by how much?
Don't miss the video as we examine how Joe Espada will deploy his outfielders and get the most out of the DH this season!
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