FINISH STRONG

Here's why a strong finish is crucial for the Rockets

Composite image by Brandon Strange.

There can be no excuse for error in this eight-game stretch. The Rockets are facing five teams that are over .500. Each of these teams could bring a challenge to the Rockets. The Rockets are in a tight spot because of their seeding. In the Western Conference standings, the Rockets are sixth.

Salman Ali, writer for SportsMap and ESPN Houston, discussed the Rockets being four different teams in a season. In this situation, the Rockets cannot go through a series of mood swings having the Dallas Mavericks and Milwaukee Bucks in the first two games of the shorter season. Even though Rockets have five tough teams on their schedule, they still cannot afford to lose. If they do, this could cause them to fall in the Western Conference seeding. The Rockets cannot afford to see the Los Angeles Lakers nor Clippers in the first round of the playoffs.

The Rockets must make a strong push, so they are able to grab the fourth seed. For the Rockets to grab the fourth seed, they must be consistent. Meaning the leaders of the Rockets, James Harden and Russell Westbrook, must remain on the same page. On February 11, 2020, the Rockets hosted the Boston Celtics. Harden and Westbrook both combined for 78 points in a Rockets win over the Celtics. With those two players on the same page, it makes everybody's role much easier. The best way to win games, is to have a foundation.

In these final eight games in Orlando, the Rockets will see LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton, Luka Doncic, Kristaps Porzingis, Damian Lillard, Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, and more. The Rockets' zone and man defense must be superb.

Luckily, the Rockets re-signed Luc Mbah a Moute. On another positive note, Westbrook has played great isolation defense this year. Westbrook is 25th in defensive rating this year and Harden is third in steals with 106 on the season. He has been able to disrupt the passing lanes with his quick hands. P.J.Tucker at 6'5, is averaging 5.3 rebounds defensively as power forward and center. Hopefully, these are the keys to success for the Rockets' defense.

The biggest advantage the Rockets have, is their offense. As the Rockets are ranked ninth on offense but second in points per game. From the last two previous years, the Rockets were ranked in the top five but now fallen to ninth place. The reason for that is because of the Rockets lost identity on offense. Bringing over Westbrook was a challenge and not having Eric Gordon stay healthy also hurt.

Things could change now because the Rockets are healthy, they have an identity, and they have a three-time leading scorer in James Harden. Plus, Westbrook is now averaging 27.5 points per game while Harden is averaging 34 points per game.

If the Rockets want to make a strong push, Harden and Westbrook must be on the same page.

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After a rough, disheartening loss the night before to even the series at one game apiece, the Astros tried to shake it off and regroup for a win on Thursday to get the series win against the Diamondbacks in Arizona. Here is a quick recap of the finale:

Final Score: Diamondbacks 5, Astros 4.

Record: 6-6, second in the AL West.

Winning pitcher: Junior Guerra (1-0, 0.00 ERA).

Losing pitcher: Ryan Pressly (0-1, 40.50 ERA).

Bielak tosses an impressive start as Houston puts him in winning position

After both teams finished the first three innings scoreless, the Astros were able to get a little bit of good luck on their side, unlike the night prior. Jose Altuve started the inning with a much-needed single, stole second, then moved to third on a groundout for the second out. That set up Yuli Gurriel, who hit a ball down the third-base line that would strike the bag and bounce away from Arizona, allowing Altuve to score and put Houston up 1-0.

Though he likely would have preferred more run support, Brandon Bielak made do with that one run in his first career MLB start. He was able to complete five innings of work, holding Arizona scoreless over that span despite allowing a runner in each inning. He left in line for the win, with a final line of 5.0 IP, 2 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 3 BB, 1 K, 0 HR.

Altuve extends the lead, then Diamondbacks go ahead

Jose Altuve helped double the lead in the top of the sixth, connecting for a one-out solo home run to make it 2-0. With Bielak's night over at five innings, Cy Sneed took over in the bottom of the sixth and allowed back-to-back one-out doubles to cut Houston's lead in half. He allowed a single to put runners on the corners before Dusty Baker would move on to another reliever to try and preserve the lead. Blake Taylor would enter but allowed the tying RBI-single to take Bielak out of winning position. Taylor would go on to allow a go-ahead run before getting out of the jam.

In the bottom of the seventh, Taylor was still on the mound but would only get two outs before another call to the pen. Andre Scrubb would enter and get the final out of the inning. In the top of the eighth, Jose Altuve would improve to 3-for-4 on the night with a two-out double, setting up Alex Bregman for a go-ahead two-run home run to make it 4-3, Houston.

Ryan Pressly allows the walk-off

Scrubb went back to the mound in the bottom of the eighth and was able to record a 1-2-3 inning to move the game to the ninth. After a scoreless top of the ninth, Ryan Pressly would attempt to get the save in the bottom of the inning. Instead, he would allow the walk-off, loading the bases with no outs on a walk and two singles before a two-RBI single to give Arizona the win and the series victory.

Up Next: The Astros will travel to Oakland to kick off a three-game weekend series with the A's on Friday at 8:10 PM Central. The A's will send Chris Bassitt (1-0, 0.93 ERA) to the mound while Houston will turn to Zack Greinke (0-0, 5.00 ERA) to help cut down Oakland's division lead.

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