UNCHARTED WATERS

How Houston Rockets dominant win over Kings has them in an unfamiliar place

Rockets Alperen Sengun
The Rockets evened their record at 3-3. Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images.
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HOUSTON (AP) — Alperen Sengun had 17 points, 12 assists and eight rebounds and Jalen Green scored 23 points in the Houston Rockets’ 122-97 victory over the Sacramento Kings on Monday night.

The Rockets have won three straight to improve to 3-3. They are .500 for the first time since Oct. 22, 2021, when they started the 2021-22 season 1-1.

Sengun fell just two rebounds shy of his third career triple-double, doing so in just 26 minutes and without playing in the fourth quarter.

“We’re playing like animals out there right now,” Sengun said. “Everyone is tough, physical, everyone is helping each other. Nobody is getting easy points anymore. We need to keep it up all year.”

Houston shot 48.4% from 3, making 15 of 31. Green was 3 of 5 from beyond the arc and made 10 of 12 free throws.

“I loved our aggressiveness at the start,” Rockets coach Ime Udoka said. “They came out with some more physicality and tried to increase their pressure, and we handled it well and kind of threw it back at them. Loved everything we did, coming out and taking the fight, taking the initial hit and responding well.”

Keon Ellis scored 15 points off the bench to lead the Kings with star De’Aaron Fox out for a third straight game because of a sprained right ankle.

Kevin Huerter scored 13 points, Keegan Murray had 12 points, and Domantas Sabonis added eight points and eight rebounds, well below the league-leading 14.2 rebounds per game that he entered Monday averaging.

Houston outrebounded Sacramento 39-34.

“Give Houston credit — they kicked our behind, starting with me,” Kings coach Mike Brown said. “They kicked my behind and on down the line. They came to play tonight. They punched us in the mouth, and we did not respond. It was evident.”

The Kings are 0-3 without Fox, who averaged 31.3 points in his three games before getting hurt. Fox had a light shootaround session before the game.

“The sense of urgency is there — we don’t ever want to get too far behind, but there’s a lot of basketball left,” Brown said. “We’re facing some adversity, and I’m intrigued to see how we handle it.”

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Kings: Host Portland on Wednesday night.

Rockets: Host the Los Angeles Lakers on Wednesday night.

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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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