Joel Blank: Rockets need to find a sense of urgency fast

Chris Paul has played well since a disaster of a Game 1, but the Rockets need more. Bob Levey/Getty Images

It's time to wake up and smell the urgency Rockets fans.

Houston, it's time to face the reality that your team hasn't been playing good basketball. The Rockets have been on cruise control for the entire month of April and have yet to realize this is crunch time in the NBA. Ever since this team wrapped up the best record in the NBA, they have been lacking offensive efficiency, defensive tenacity and complete team chemistry. For a team that has been clicking on all cylinders for most of the regular season and only had lows from injuries to key players, this has become a huge issue. Something that was initially being brushed aside as a sidebar to resting players late in the year has now come full circle. It started with resting players that were healthy, and has continued to the point where it's not rust anymore, it's more of a relaxed attitude and lack of a sense of urgency that is a must when you get to the postseason.

Let's not forget that Game 1 of their opening round playoff series against Minnesota was tight for most of the game and Houston was lucky to come out with a victory. Sure they got a blowout win in game 2, but Game 3 was more of the same, sloppy, inconsistent play for Houston. They very easily could be down 2 games to 1,  instead of being up a game heading into Game 4.

When you look around the playoff landscape and you see the teams that are having success right now, it's obvious that chemistry and teamwork are of the utmost importance.  The Indiana Pacers play team basketball on both ends of the floor. Aside from Victor Oladipo, most casual basketball fans would be hard pressed to name another Pacers player. The New Orleans Pelicans are getting maximum effort and production from their star player Anthony Davis, but Jrue Holiday and the rest of the team have stepped up in a big way as they upset Portland in the opening round.  Teams like Utah, Philly, and Golden State are playing defense at a very high level and that leads to continuity and fast breaks on the offensive end. Houston needs to find that balance between success for their superstars and contributions from their role players, as well as getting back to the team defense that propelled them to the top of the NBA this season.

In Game 1, Chris Paul struggled and in Game 2 James Harden’s jumper was missing in action. In Game 3, Harden and Paul did their thing but didn’t get nearly enough help to compete with the energy and emotions of Minnesota. Aside from one big half from Clint Capela and one game from Gerald Green, the role players for the Rockets have been inconsistent and in some cases inexcusable.  Eric Gordon has taken last year's 6th man of the year award and turned it into being consistently inconsistent all regular season. In the playoffs and on this team, he is arguably the third most important offensive player on this roster and in this opening round series he has been anything but that.

It's time to step up as a team, and shape up from and execution standpoint. There is so much talent on this team that they can get by in this opening round series with inconsistent play, but as they get deeper into the playoffs they are setting themselves up for a big fall if they don't improve in all aspects of the game. They are lucky to have a one game lead in this opening round series and have plenty of time to right the ship, but in short the time is now and they need to find a sense of urgency before it's too late.

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Justin Verlander has been a pleasant surprise coming off Tommy John surgery. Composite image by Brandon Strange.

As baseball passes the quarter pole of the 2022 season, the Houston Astros are right where we thought they’d be - first place and overwhelming Vegas favorites to win the American League West, and holding the second-best record in the AL.

But as Jerry Garcia put it, “what a long strange trip it’s been.” This wasn’t the route baseball analysts figured for the Astros. Remember the start of the season? The Astros were returning a power-packed lineup that finished 2021’s World Series run with the top team batting average in the American League, .269. Sure, pitching might be a question mark with Justin Verlander returning from two years out with Tommy John and Lance McCullers recovering from injury.

Still the Astros figured to have enough firepower at the plate to overcome their pitching concerns. With the A’s waving a white flag on the season, the Angels likely to fade and the Mariners and Rangers headed nowhere, the rest of the Astros season is merely a formality – it’s all about getting their pitching rotation ready for the post-season and Dollar Dog Nights.

But instead of the Astros beating down opponents with offense, it’s pitching that’s propelled them to the top of the standings. Yes, he’s destined to Cooperstown, but who saw Verlander, age 39 and two years on the sidelines, at 6-1 with a crazy, shrinking 1.22 ERA. Nobody is supposed to come back from Tommy John at that age like that.

Luis Garcia, Cristian Javier, Framber Valdez, Jose Urquidy, Rafael Montero, Ryne Stanek, even Jake Odorizzi, are performing above expectations.

Now those awesome bashers at the plate? Let’s not pile on and exaggerate how bad they’ve been … but disappointing is putting it mildly. Historically disastrous might be closer. Let’s crunch the numbers.

Monday night the Astros batting order was: Jose Altuve, Michael Brantley, Alex Bregman, Yordan Alvarez, Yuli Gurriel, Kyle Tucker, Jeremy Pena, Jose Siri, and Martin Maldonado. You’ve got batting champs, All-Stars, an MVP, solid hitters and promising young players up and down the order.

How’s this? Every single player is hitting below his lifetime average (with the exception of rookie Pena who didn’t have a career average heading into 2022). The team batting average, .230, is 10th in the American League. That’s what you call a team slump. If anything, the Astros are not who we thought they are. It’s really a wonder they’re in first place.

Altuve is hitting 25 points below his career standard. He’s followed by Brantley (-16), Bregman (-49), Alvarez (-35), Gurriel (-67), Tucker (-29), Siri (-29), and Maldonado (-86).

That’s a collective 336 batting average points below what was expected if the Astros had just a normal year. Yeah, baseballs are kept in humidors like fine cigars this year, but the ball ain’t that dead.

Here’s an even bigger surprise, this time a happy one. Remember the citywide hand-wringing, oh what are we going to do without Carlos Correa this year? Well, rookie Jeremy Pena isn’t just sticking his finger in the dike, he’s leading the regulars with a .287 average, seven homers and 22 RBI. He’s the Astros MVP so far and has to be the leader for Rookie of the Year.

That irreplaceable guy Pena replaced? He’s batting .268 with two home runs and 14 RBI somewhere else.

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