WHATEVER IT TAKES

How commitment on defense is paying off for James Harden and the Rockets

Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images.

Thursday night, the Rockets were able to take a bigger step in the seeding because of a 113-97 win against the Los Angeles Lakers. They were able to do so without their starting point guard, Russell Westbrook. James Harden had big night by providing 39 points, 12 assists, and shot 50% from three. Harden was even a plus 16 from the field of play.

Ever since the Harden entered the bubble, he has played exceptionally well on defense and offense. Harden has seen a numerous number of double teams since playing the Dallas Mavericks. But Harden said they prepare for it well in practice. This allows shooters like Ben McLemore, Jeff Green, PJ Tucker, and Austin Rivers to get open. Harden has been able to direct his teammates to the middle of the paint or kick it out to the corner.

"Really good. That's nothing new to us. We [have] seen that already. That's something actually we practice. We watch film on teams that trap. Guys are in their right spots, get some open shots, and [a] couple of layups," as Harden told the media Thursday night.

Harden in the last four games is averaging 33.8 points per game, shooting 35.8% from three, nine assists, and 5.3 steals a game.

Harden has played stellar defense in these four games as well. Before the playoffs start, Harden wants the Rockets' defense to be better. Even though the Rockets are 5th in steals, there still can be improvement. The Rockets defense has looked good in the bubble as well. They are ranked 7th in general team defense.

On a good note, coach Mike D'Antoni has admired Harden's defense while in the bubble.

"His commitment on defense is the number one thing. Really talking and trying to get guys to buy-in. You got to do it by example. He came up with steals and he is locked in. Whatever it takes to win," as D'Antoni said.

Harden did like the way they played defense Thursday night by holding the Lakers under 100 points. Especially, when Anthony Davis is on limited minutes and LeBron James did not play.

"What I'm really proud of is on the defensive end. They did not score 100 points. Even with LeBron [James] not playing and AD playing limited minutes, our goal is to defend on a high-level tonight and I think we did that tonight," as Harden said. "That's going to win us a championship, on the defensive end."

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Jose Altuve is crushing the baseball. Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images.

The Astros and White Sox playing through the weekend at Minute Maid Park is their most interesting series since the 2005 World Series the ChiSox won in a sweep. Both are clear 2021 World Series contenders. We already know the Astros won't get swept four straight this time as their mashfest at the plate continued in Thursday's 10-2 coast of a series starting victory. So far in June the Astros are a spiffy 11-4. And have lost ground to American League West leading Oakland. The A's are 12-2 this month and take a two game division lead into the weekend.

The Astro offense is humming and then some, leading Major League Baseball in runs scored per game, batting average, on base percentage, and slugging percentage. The runs per game gap between the Astros and second-best Los Angeles Dodgers is larger than the gap from the Dodgers to 10th best. The Astros have hit at least two dingers in their last 10 games. That ties the MLB record set two years ago by an atrocious Orioles' squad that finished 54-108.

Jose Altuve's days of being a .340 hitter are almost certainly finished, and he has a paltry six doubles so far this season. But it's not like a .298 batting average is feeble, and with his home run surge at eight homers in his last 10 games Altuve is now on pace to hit 38 homers this season. 38! His career high of 31 was set two seasons ago. The single season record for a second baseman is 43, hit by Davey Johnson in 1973.

Michel Brantley is a .340 hitter this season. .342 to be exact going into Friday night. Since coming off the injured list he is hitting a mere .532 with 17 hits in 32 at bats. He's been a doubles machine though with diminished home run power. So naturally Brantley belted a three run shot in his first at bat Thursday, snapping a drought of 99 homerless ABs.

Losing Alex Bregman to a quad muscle pull for likely multiple weeks is a blow but if it had to happen this isn't the worst of times for it. Bregman is 0 for his last 19, and over his last 18 games hit just .174. In his first game replacing Bregman Abraham Toro homered and knocked in four.

While the offense can be overpowering it certainly isn't carrying the team. Over the last 18 games Astros' starting pitchers have a 2.38 earned run average.

Rockets looking to win the lottery

The NBA Draft lottery is Tuesday night. Hakeem Olajuwon will represent the Rockets on the freaks and geeks stage of non-playoff teams. The moment of truth for the Rockets is when the fifth pick envelope is opened. If it's a Rockets card it's a horrible blow to the pace of rebuilding efforts because the Rockets would lose the pick to Oklahoma City and in exchange get the 18th pick from Miami. When "The Athletic" asked General Manager Rafael Stone if dropping from top four to 18 would be a set back to the Rockets' rebuild, he absurdly said "not really." Either Stone was spinning in a spirit of optimism, or the Rockets have a not very smart guy as GM. He gets the benefit of the doubt toward the former. The Rockets have a 52.1 percent chance of keeping their pick.

The NBA coaching carousel is spinning hard. Seven vacancies, with another one or two possible. Rick Carlisle's sudden resignation in Dallas makes the Mavericks' opening the clearly best available gig. The Mavs have 22 year old superstar Luka Doncic and that's that. The Mavericks haven't won a playoff series since winning the NBA title back in 2011.

Doc Rivers's coaching job is presumably safe in Philadelphia but after blowing a 26 point lead at home to go down three games to two in their series vs. Atlanta, if the 76ers are taken out Doc adds to the worst gag job resume of any coach in NBA history. Three times Rivers has coached a team that blew a 3-1 series lead and lost in seven. No other coach has twice lost a series after leading 3-1. The Rockets did it to Rivers's Clippers in 2015. The Nuggets did it to Doc last year ending his tenure with the Clippers. Back in 2003 Doc was coaching Tracy McGrady and Orlando when the Detroit Pistons rallied from three games to one down and make the Magic disappear.

Buzzer Beaters:

1. Rather cool and coincidental that the giveaway at Sunday's Astros-White Sox game is a Father's Day Carlos Correa jersey. Carlos and wife Daniella announced this week that they are expecting their first child.

2. If the Hawks eliminate the 76ers Clint Capela would be entitled to a hearty chuckle at Daryl Morey's expense.

3. With apologies to Starburst, Best fruit candies: Bronze-Chuckles Silver-Skittles Gold-Fruit Slices

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