Joel Blank: An in-depth look at the Rockets going forward

Late in games, James Harden relies too much on one-on-one. Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

What's wrong with the Rockets? That's a question that echoes throughout the city on a day-by-day and year by year basis depending on the state of the team and their record at any given time. The question is being bantered about more and more these days because Houston can't seem to get back on the winning track after winning 14 in a row. Immediately following the long win streak, the team suffered five straight defeats and since then has struggled to play .500 basketball. Obviously, injuries are the main reason why the team has struggled, however there are other factors involved if you delve a little deeper.

Crunch time execution

If you go back to the game at Boston, the Rockets have a bad habit of diverting back to season’s past when crunch time hits. By this I mean they get away from their up-tempo, 3-point shooting, quick movement of the offense, and revert to running the shot clock down, giving the ball to James Harden, letting him dribble, dribble, dribble and settling for off-balance, step back 3-point shots. Having Chris Paul on the floor with Harden will no doubt help in trying to eliminate these bad habits, but until they play side by side in a long playoff run, the offensive execution in crunch-time will still be a question mark. Coaching also plays into this, as the coaching staff has a huge challenge in standing up to both Harden and Paul and making sure that at the end of the day they do what's right for the team, instead of what they think they can do individually. That means demanding plays be run, making sure the ball moves and getting others involved in getting shots and opportunities to score.

Keep your cool

The team also has to do a better job of keeping its composure. If you look at the last stretch of 10 to 12 games you can find several instances where both Harden and Paul lost their cool and wasted possessions at the end of games with their frustration and anger. Harden had meltdowns in the Clippers game at home as well as the Boston game on the road in drawing offensive fouls caused by defenders that bated him into showing aggression. Paul had outbursts at the end of home games late in December and in early January including the Warriors game, where he and Gerald Green jacked 40 foot threes with a full shot clock in a crucial situation. Of course all that was just a precursor leading up to the Clippers game in Los Angeles, with the now infamous back hallway confrontation with the Clippers at their locker room, in which the composure of the entire team needs to be questioned. For all the accomplishments that these two have compiled during their illustrious NBA careers, their postseason records are not stellar and in order to change their reputation in the playoffs they will need each other as well as their teammates to orchestrate a long and deep playoff run where they play their game, execute their offense and maintain their composure when times get tough and button are pushed.

Get stops and play both ends of the floor

Defensively the team is head-and-shoulders better than they have been in the past three years plus. When healthy -- and that is key -- they have been a top 10 team in defensive rating. The additions of Luc Mbah a Moute and P.J. Tucker have been huge, and nowhere have their efforts been more noticeable than on the defensive end of the floor. The emergence of Clint Capela as a rim protector has also been big and the three of them have helped assistant coach Jeff Bzdelik create defensive schemes that can get stops at any time, especially at the end of games. When you throw in CP3 and his propensity for steals and deflections, and Trevor Ariza consistently is an above average on-ball defender, even if he has lost a step. Obviously, with all the injury problems the team has been forced to endure, the ratings have plummeted in the last month. Assuming the team is healthy going into the postseason, those five guys are the closest thing the NBA has season in terms of a lineup that can compete with the Warriors "suicide lineup" of Curry, Durant, Thompson, Green and Iguodala. That is huge because in the playoffs, when the game slows down and it becomes a grind or a half court contest, great teams get stops, and they have possession by possession lineups that can get them.

Get offensive help from others

Offensively there are no worries or doubts about Harden, Paul, and reigning Sixth Man of the Year Eric Gordon, who has stepped up even more with all the injuries to the starting backcourt. The biggest question marks come from The Supporting Cast, especially those who were brought in to provide more shooting and scoring like Ryan Anderson. The inexplicable ongoing shooting slump that Andersen is going through yet again is particularly puzzling when you ponder that his biggest shooting woes happen at home. The guy plays 41 games a year in the Toyota Center and can get shots up whenever he wants, and yet he can't find the ocean from the beach at home? This is a guy that was brought in to be the perfect "stretch 4"in the Rockets offense because of his shooting and range, he has to make shots to provide relief for Harden and Paul and open up the floor for others. Let’s hope between now and tax day, he finds a way to figure it out.

Houston native Gerald Green has been a pleasant surprise and an unexpected addition to the Rockets' offense and rotation. For a guy that was literally brought off the street and asked to compete, he is now seemingly a valuable cog in the Rockets' rotation heading towards the postseason. Green will need to stay focused on playing his role, utilizing his athleticism, and making shots, while staying away from his stumbling blocks of the past like controlling his emotions and putting behind him his need to get his shots and score his points regardless of the game situation. He needs to be reminded he is on a one-year contract with the best team he has ever been a part of. His emotions can be channeled into a positive, especially when he is making shots, but he can't be one of the casualties suspended for his actions on or off the court, especially when the light's become the brightest. 

One final thought to ponder as the Rockets navigate through the second half of the season with the trade deadline fast approaching is the teams' lack of depth up front. The Rockets have shown an inability to guard teams that have a big front line or two effective post players. Look no further than LaMarcus Aldridge and his Portland and San Antonio teams that sent Houston home from the playoffs twice in recent years. With Aldridge on the low block and with Pau Gasol or Robin Lopez on the high post or other side of the floor, the Rockets had huge issues trying to slow down or stop those big front lines. They went out and got Nene a year ago and thought the problem was solved, but his inability to stay healthy has that solution in limbo. Nene is essential in the postseason and no matter how much you nurse him along in the regular season, if last year was any indication, you can't rely on him playing long minutes or being durable in the playoffs. Capella, although slight in frame can hold his own on the low block, but if you are counting on Tucker to be your other low-post defender, teams will attack and exploit that match up with bigger and stronger and more physically gifted post up players. Look for the Rockets to explore an additional big man at the trade deadline or when veterans are bought out of contacts, to try to help with that deficiency.

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Houston couldn't keep up

Astros fall to Blue Jays as Toronto gets homer-happy

Houston's bats couldn't keep up with Toronto's Saturday night. Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

With an offensive clinic in the opener on Friday night, which helped them handily defeat the Blue Jays, the Astros returned to Minute Maid Park Saturday with a chance to secure another series. Toronto had other plans, though, reversing roles with Houston by getting big home runs to even the series.

Final Score: Blue Jays 8, Astros 4

Astros' Record: 17-16, third in the AL West

Winning Pitcher: Steven Matz (5-2)

Losing Pitcher: Cristian Javier (3-1)

Toronto flips the script and turns on their offense against Javier

Toronto flipped the script from the night before early in this middle game of the series, dealing damage to Cristian Javier, who so far in 2021 had been able to limit his amount of earned runs. After retiring the first four batters he faced, a one-out walk in the top of the second set up the Blue Jays' first hit of the night, a two-run home run by Cavan Biggio, giving them a 2-0 lead over Houston.

After a leadoff home run made it a 3-0 score, Javier would deal with the fallout of more walks in the top of the third, issuing two to set up a two-out two-RBI double to give the Jays a commanding 5-0 advantage. Javier would battle back and complete five full innings, getting one out into the sixth before a walk would prompt Dusty Baker to make the call to the bullpen. His final line: 5.1 IP, 4 H, 5 ER, 4 BB, 8 K, 2 HR, 91 P.

Alvarez keeps mashing as Houston tries to claw back into it

Javier would exit with at least some runs on the board in support of him, with Yordan Alvarez hitting a two-run opposite-field homer in the bottom of the fourth to cut the lead to three runs. Alvarez accounted for another run in the next inning, coming through with an RBI-single to make it 5-3, which is where the game stood as Andre Scrubb would take over in the top of the sixth.

Scrubb finished that inning for Javier and returned for a 1-2-3 seventh to keep it a two-run game. Bryan Abreu was the next reliever, and he, too, was able to retire the Blue Jays in order in the top of the eighth. The Astros continued to chip away at Toronto's lead, getting another run in the bottom of the inning on an RBI by Yuli Gurriel to make it 5-4 heading to the ninth.

Toronto evens the series

Brooks Raley entered to try and keep it a one-run game with a clean inning, but instead, two runners would reach on a walk and error before Joe Smith would enter to try and strand them. Instead, a two-out home run put the game back out of reach at 8-4, with Houston coming up empty in the bottom of the inning, setting up a rubber match in the finale.

Up Next: This series's third and final game will be an afternoon start of 1:10 PM Central on Sunday. Zack Greinke (2-1, 3.76 ERA) will try to add more wins to his record for Houston, while Nate Pearson will be making his 2021 debut for Toronto.

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