Gut check time

"It's just one game", but the Rockets need it

Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

Mike D'Antoni came out to speak with media at 11:51 a.m. on Friday, over thirty minutes after he was scheduled to do so before the Rockets' practiced. The team typically watches film and goes over things before speaking to the media and it's not uncommon for D'Antoni to arrive a little after his scheduled scrum. However, much like after Houston's loss to the Trail Blazers, this was an unusually long amount of time for the team to congregate.

"You got something to do?" D'Antoni joked to Houston Chronicle reporter Jonathan Feigen who asked the natural question. "We had a lot to cover, yes."

The Rockets have lost 3 out of their last 4 games and 2 of those losses have come against teams with an under .500 record. They've been a -2.9 per 100 possessions (18th in the league) in that span. To say that they've been spiraling as of late would be an understatement.

"I'm not a big believer in [team meetings]," said D'Antoni. "We just got to play hard, go at it, and attack them. We've just been a little lackluster in the last few outings and we have to get away from it."

While the Rockets have been careful to avoid the phrase 'team meeting' over the past few days, they've had their share of them. After they lost to Portland, Russell Westbrook led a spirited discussion post-game and before practice in the film room they had another long discussion.

Nonetheless, the Rockets have some real problems that need sorting. Teams go through rough spells and adversity, but for Houston to get where they want to be, they need to establish a certain level of consistency that they just haven't exhibited yet. Through the doldrums of an NBA regular season, it's hard to gather the motivation to be this consistent. Fortunately for Houston, a high-profile victory against the Los Angeles Lakers can theoretically jump start things for them.

"I mean, it's a big game," admitted D'Antoni. "It'll all mean a lot. It's an early test and we'll see if we can pass it. Does it mean more than anything else? Not really, not in the scheme of things. You got to take it into perspective."

Teams rarely admit that high-profile, national TV matchups like this mean more to them than any other game, but it's only natural that they do. Players and coaches have to admit that this game doesn't mean any more than the other 81 even though neither fans nor media ever buy charade.

"It's just one game," said Harden predictably.

The Lakers in particular have proven that they are the true best team in the Western Conference (33-8 with a +8.0 net rating) through the halfway point of the season. Their length also provide an interesting challenge for the Rockets - a team that's been undersized since the season tipped off in October. Houston will try and counter this by playing a traditional big on the floor at all times, never going small as their known to do.

Houston will carry on with the lineup that they've rolled out the past few games, starting Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Ben McLemore, P.J. Tucker, and Clint Capela. Against the Lakers, the interesting question here becomes, who guards the other big?

According to D'Antoni, that'll be James Harden. Harden guarding bigs isn't new for the Rockets as they've had to resort to it before, but it's come mostly for spurts. Against the Lakers, Harden will be defending a big for the entirety of the game. Tucker will continue with his expected assignment of guarding LeBron James and shadowing all of his minutes.

It's the first time both of these teams in their current iterations will face each other so there are a lot of fascinating subplots here. Teams with this kind of length have historically decided to funnel Harden to their rim protector. The current Bucks and Jazz are great examples of this. Harden's been in a bit of a funk lately and having to drive through Danny Green only to have to meet Anthony Davis at the rim is a tough ask, but he's up for it.

"I'm assuming their rim protection is really great," said Harden. "They do a good job of contesting shots with their length and they have some pretty good guards that are guarding."

Clint Capela has relished the opportunity to go up against Joel Embiid, Rudy Gobert, and other great centers in the past, but he doesn't view this matchup the same way..

"It's different," said Capela. "Tomorrow it's more about the whole team that I'm excited about [facing]."

Regular season basketball games don't carry the same kind of weight as they do in a sport like football, but this matchup will certainly tell us a lot about the state of the team.

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McCullers Jr. had nine strikeouts over four

McCullers Jr. looks sharp in tune-up before Rangers overpower Houston's bullpen

Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

Despite watching their chance to clinch their playoff spot on the field slip away in the walk-off loss on Friday, the Astros benefited from a loss by the Angels later in the night, securing their playoff berth. That meant they could play conservatively in the final two games of the season against the Rangers in Arlington. Here's a quick rundown of Saturday's matchup:

Final Score: Rangers 6, Astros 1.

Record: 29-30, second in the AL West.

Winning pitcher: Jimmy Herget (1-0, 3.20 ERA).

Losing pitcher: Brandon Bielak (3-3, 6.75 ERA).

McCullers Jr. looks playoff-ready 

With nothing substantial to play for, the Astros did not expect to ask Lance McCullers Jr. to go deep into Saturday's game, instead giving him a few innings for a tune-up before assuming whatever role he would play in the post-season. He looked impressive, a promising sign after his injury stint and struggles on the road at points this season.

He finished four innings, during which he racked up a season-high nine strikeouts while giving up no runs on just two hits, both singles, and two walks. His final line: 4.0 IP, 2 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 2 BB, 9 K, 0 HR, 61 P.

Both teams trade runs as  they go to their bullpens

Meanwhile, neither team was getting much going at the plate in the early goings, keeping it a scoreless game through the first five. Brandon Bielak took over for McCullers Jr. starting in the fifth but would allow the first run of the night in the bottom of the sixth as the Rangers would get three singles to take a 1-0 lead.

After Kyle Gibson held the Astros at bay for six innings, Houston would get on the board against Texas' bullpen, getting a leadoff double by Aledmyz Diaz in the top of the seventh. Diaz moved to third on a sac bunt, then scored on a sac fly by Jack Mayfield, making it 1-1.

Rangers blow it open in the seventh

The tie didn't last long, as Bielak would put two on base in the bottom of the seventh before giving up a three-run homer to make it a 4-1 Rangers lead. Andre Scrubb was next out of Houston's bullpen and allowed a solo home run on his first pitch. Scrubb would complete the inning, but not before allowing another run on three singles to push Texas' lead to 6-1.

Cy Sneed was next out of Houston's bullpen for the bottom of the eighth and tossed a scoreless frame with two strikeouts. Houston would not make the unlikely comeback in the top of the ninth, with the Rangers taking the game 6-1.

Up Next: The last game of the Astros' 2020 regular season will be Sunday at 2:05 PM Central, as are most other games on the MLB slate on the league's final regular-season day. Houston's starter is TBD as they will continue to preserve their arms for the best-of-three first round that starts on Tuesday, while Texas will send Jordan Lyles (1-6, 7.08 ERA) to the mound.

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