ROCKETS WILL BE TESTED

How Rockets season can be salvaged by leaning into history

The Rockets can't afford to win. Photo by Ronald Cortes/Getty Images.

NBA insiders, and anybody with two eyes, believe the Houston Rockets have thrown in the towel and will spend the rest of the season desperately clawing their way to the bottom of the NBA standings, hoping to land a top draft pick for next year.

Reportedly the Rockets are ready to part ways with Victor Oladipo, Danuel House, Sterling Brown and others in exchange for draft picks, expiring contracts or gift cards to Twin Peaks. An NBA official told Bleacher Report, "I keep hearing they're going to (have a) fire sale."

So they're going to break up a team on a 13-game losing streak and make it even worse on purpose?

Might as well. The Rockets currently own an 11-23 record and are shooting for their 14th consecutive loss Thursday night against the Sacramento Kings. Only two teams have a lousier record than the Rockets: the Pistons (10-26) and, God love 'em, the Timberwolves (7-29). Vegas oddsmakers pin the Rockets' chances of making the playoffs this year at less than 1 percent.

You wouldn't know from this year's squad, but the Rockets are one of the NBA's most consistent winning teams in recent history. Since the turn of the millennium, the Rockets have had only two losing seasons, 2001-02 and 2005-06. They've had 14 straight winning, at least non-losing seasons – there was a relative 41-41 clunker in 2015-16. A whole generation of fans has never seen the Rockets in rebuilding mode.

The Rockets' commitment to losing will be tested tonight. The Kings have an almost equally paltry 14-22 record and are gunning for a top lottery pick, too. The Rockets can't afford to get sloppy, make mental mistakes and win.

If the Rockets truly want to lose, and go on a record-breaking losing streak (current mark is 28 games by the '76ers between the 2014-15 and 2015-16 seasons), they'll have to focus and keep their eye on the ball … as it clanks off the rim en route to another double-digit defeat. The Rockets have lost by 10 or more points in 10 of their last 13 defeats in a row.

I am qualified to help the Rockets on their journey of despair. Two times, I hit the hardwood for the Washington Generals, whose team photo should be next to the word "losers" in the dictionary. The nightly patsies for the Harlem Globetrotters were founded in 1952. Since then, their record against the Globies is three wins and something like 17,000 losses. But who's counting? The last time they beat the Globetrotters was in 1971. I imagine they got a tongue-lashing in the locker room after that game.

For a couple of years, the Generals had a gimmick. As they crisscrossed America, they'd ask a local media type in each city to play as their "secret weapon." Both times they played in Houston, I was the designated Washington General.

I met the Generals during the afternoon and practiced with the team on a portable hoop in the arena garage. They had a couple of plays designed for me. I remember coach Red Klotz saying, "Here's your uniform. You have to give it back after the game because we need it for tomorrow night in San Antonio."

There was no chance I was returning my authentic, game-worn Generals uniform either time. Let the record show that I scored in both games, including a 3-pointer.

OK, my 3-pointer never went through the hoop. They told me to shoot the ball as high as I could and a Globetrotter caught it mid-flight. He was standing on another Globetrotter's shoulders and the referee called goaltending. Hilarious. Count it.

I also made two free throws despite Globetrotter "Sweet Lou" Dunbar screaming at me and threatening to pull down my pants. I was warned that he might do that, so I had my pants tied tighter than a tourniquet.

During practice the second year, the Generals' center said he couldn't play that night because he ate too much fried chicken on the bus to Houston and felt nauseous.

Anyway, here are 5 tips for the Rockets if they want to lose out the rest of the season, Generals-style.

1. Trade the whole roster and sign a bunch of guys who couldn't beat a pickup team at Fonde Rec Center on Sabine Street in Houston.

2. If LeBron James starts chasing the referee with a pail of confetti, just stand to the side and let it happen.

3. If Luka Doncic suddenly thinks he's playing a football game and steps off a 5-yard penalty against the Rockets, do not challenge the call.

4. When James Harden covers the ball with enough Stickum to wallpaper Mar-a-Lago and does that dribbling between his legs bit, instruct the Rockets new 5 ft. 4-in. guard (he will be introduced to the crowd as "Shorty") to dive for the ball and miss it every time.

5. If Bradley Beal shoots a free throw and he's got a rubber band attached to the ball, it's a lane violation on the Rockets. Be careful, the next ball could be filled with helium.

OK Rockets, you know what to do. Now go out there and commit turnovers, shoot bricks, get T'd up, flop, violate COVID protocol. Do whatever it takes. Remember this is a team sport. Everybody has to do their share for the team to tank a season.

In other words, just keep doing what you're doing.

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The Astros suffered a heartbreaking loss to the Yankees Thursday. Composite image by Brandon Strange.

After an impressive two-game sweep of the NL-best Mets at home earlier in the week, the Astros took to the road to begin a four-game series with the league-best Yankees on Thursday night. To little surprise, the series started with a bang (no, not a trash can bang) in more ways than one, confirming that this series should be a must-watch this weekend.

New York's comeback proves no lead will be safe

Right from the get-go, the loud Yankee Stadium faithful had their chance to rain boos down on Jose Altuve before showing some pleasure as he led off the series by being hit by a pitch. They were quickly, though only temporarily, quieted as Altuve would come in to score two batters later on a three-run blast by Alex Bregman.

Three-run homers seemed to be a theme, as New York would get one of their own to tie the game off the bat of Giancarlo Stanton to tie the game, then Yordan Alvarez continued his dominant June by pushing the Astros back in front by three with another three-run bomb in the third, making it 6-3. That lead held through to the bottom of the ninth, where instead of holding it, Ryan Pressly issued two walks to set up the fourth homer of the game to tie things again before Aaron Judge would get a walk-off single to complete the impressive comeback.

Not only will we get to sit back and watch the slug-fest between Yordan and Judge this weekend, but it looks like with Alex Bregman swinging well again to round out the top of Houston's order, the Astros may be getting closer to their full power. So far in June, these two teams sit third and fourth in on-base percentage, with the Astros at .351 and the Yankees right behind at .350. That means we should continue to see scoring opportunities on both sides that can tilt momentum one way or the other as these lineups try to battle against the opposing pitcher.

How will the aces fare

Verlander vs. Judge, and Cole vs. Alvarez, need I say more? Although we won't see Justin Verlander go up against Gerrit Cole in the same game in this series (they should go head to head next Thursday, however), they will pitch on back-to-back days, with Houston's ace going Friday night and New York's on Saturday afternoon. Verlander is coming off his worst start of the year, a three and two-thirds inning outing where the White Sox put up seven runs, four earned, against him and knocked him out early to give him his third loss and increased his ERA from 1.94 to 2.30.

The last time he faced the Yankees was in the Bronx in the 2019 playoffs, in ALCS Game 5, where he went seven frames while allowing four runs, all on two homers in the first inning, which is all New York needed to grab the 4-1 victory to make it a 3-2 Houston lead in the series, which the Astros would go on to clinch in Game 6. So, with the double dose of bad taste in his mouth, it will be interesting to see if he can use that as the fuel to get back to the phenomenal form he's had this year or if the Yankees try to jump on him early like they did nearly three years ago.

Cole, meanwhile, is fresh off of two quality starts in a row against the Rays, where he allowed just one run on six hits with nineteen strikeouts over 13.1 innings of work. He's had his share of strife this season, though, including a seven-run shelling by the Twins earlier this month, along with a start in April where he couldn't make it through two innings against the Tigers. He's had success against his former club, most notably a complete-game shutout in Houston last July with twelve K's and holding the Astros to just three hits.

If the series opener was any indication, we are in for the treat of a playoff-caliber matchup, if not a potential ALCS preview that we may see in October. The Yankees showed why they have the best record and are the hottest team in baseball on Thursday night, but the Astros were only a good outing from their closer away from having a relatively lopsided win. The rivalry is real; the competition is close, and we get to enjoy the show.

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