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.
The only cheers Houston guard L.J. Cryer heard in his return to Baylor came when he missed a 3-pointer on the first shot of the game for the second-ranked Cougars.
Cryer, who as a freshman three years ago was part of Baylor’s only national championship, made six free throws in overtime and finished with 15 points as No. 2 and Big 12-leading Houston beat the 11th-ranked Bears 82-76 on Saturday after blowing a 16-point halftime lead.
“I was expecting the boos and stuff like that, like not welcoming,” said Cryer, who had no turnovers while playing nearly 43 minutes.
“Really proud of L.J.,” Cougars coach Kelvin Sampson said. “L.J. was in a tough environment today. ... He showed his maturity because he just played solid.”
The Cougars (24-3, 11-3 Big 12) never trailed in regulation and appeared to win the game on a long 3-pointer by Jamal Shead at the buzzer. But replay showed the ball was still in his hands when the clock ran out.
All six of Cryer’s free throws came in overtime, the first two with 3:06 left to put the Cougars back ahead to stay after falling behind for the first time. After playing 70 games the past three seasons for Baylor before transferring to Houston, he got booed loudly every time he touched the ball early.
Emanuel Sharp had 18 points to lead the Cougars. J’Wan Roberts had 17 points and eight rebounds, while Shead had 12 points and 10 assists.
“Everybody contributed to this win, we’re all responsible for this win,” Shead said. “This was a really good team win.”
Ja’Kobe Walter scored a game-high 23 points for Baylor (19-8, 8-6), and RayJ Dennis had 21. Jalen Bridges had 17 points and 13 rebounds, and Jayden Nunn scored 11 points.
The Bears didn’t tie the game for the first time until Yves Missi, their 7-foot freshman, made a layup while being fouled with 4.4 seconds left in regulation to make it 69-all. Roberts rebounded Missi’s missed free throw, and Shead was just a tick late in ending the game without overtime.
Baylor opened the second half with a 12-0 run while Houston missed its first eight shots. Bridges scored 14 of his 17 points in the second half, including nine in a row for the Bears in the final 5 1/2 minutes of regulation.
The Cougars led 41-25 at halftime after scoring 13 points off 11 Baylor turnovers. They made 10 of 11 shots in one stretch, which Roberts started by assisting on consecutive baskets before ending it with a jumper that made it 27-10.
“We just felt like they brought it to us in the first half. They’re easily the most physical team that we’ve played so far and I feel like we were a little bit taken back,” Bridges said. “And we just came out in the second half trying to punch them back.”
Bears sophomore guard Langston Love, their sixth player averaging double-figure scoring going into Saturday, was out of the fourth time in five games because of a leg injury. He played 15 minutes at BYU on Tuesday. ... Sampson revealed after the game that Cougars junior guard Ramon Walker, who got hurt in practice this week, will miss the rest of the season because of a torn meniscus.
It was their first meeting as Big 12 foes, and first since the Final Four three years ago when Baylor beat Houston in a semifinal game on way to winning its first national championship.
Some consider Houston the best team in the country, even though reigning national champion UConn is No. 1. The Cougars won both games this week against top-11 teams, also beating sixth-ranked Iowa State. Baylor is certain to drop several spots, even though its consecutive losses are to Top 25 teams.
Houston is home Tuesday night against Cincinnati.
Baylor plays Monday night at TCU, which won 105-102 in triple overtime on Jan. 27 to become the first and only other opposing team to win at Foster Pavilion.