ROCKETS ON A ROLL

Lance Zierlein: Daryl Morey started it, but I know how to finish it

Daryl Morey has put together a roster that can beat Golden State...If they listen to Lance. Rockets.com

Earlier this year in this very space, I tried to tell you that this Rockets team was a team you could trust. I implored you to look past the playoff failings of the past by James Harden and the rest of the Rockets. I asked that you recognize the roster composition and keep an open mind in analyzing and assessing this Rockets team as a brand new unit…. a unit that is designed to go deeper than any of Daryl Morey’s recent iterations.

Last night, the Rockets proved once again why it’s safe to jump on the bandwagon with a 115-111 win in Portland against a team that previously carried a 13-game win streak until the Rockets sent them and their fans home with sad face emojis on. It’s official. This team is different.

Built to guard

The addition of Chris Paul was obviously important because it spread the “alpha leadership” role from just James Harden to another player who is highly respected and highly competitive in Paul. That’s the obvious observation. However, the most important moves from an Xs and Os standpoint was when Morey added guys like P.J. Tucker and Luc Mbah a Moute to go with Trevor Ariza as perimeter defenders.

The Golden State Warriors (and actually the Rockets for that matter) love to get teams by creating screen situations where defenders have to switch or fight over screens. When the Warriors are able to create a switch situation, they exploit the matchup with a one-on-one with one of their deadly shooters. In Mbah a Moute, Gerald Green, and Ariza, the Rockets have great length with the ability to switch and defend multiple positions.

In essence, the Rockets can go smaller and they can switch with most of their defenders and this just might be the kryptonite they need, along with an MVP in James Harden, to knock of the Golden State Warriors and grab Houston back-to-back titles in Houston (we are just going to skip over the Texans season if that is OK).

How to close

There are a few steps the Rockets need to follow to make this championship dream a reality. First and foremost, just finish what you started and capture the No. 1 seed throughout the playoffs. The Rockets now have a four-game lead over an injury-riddled Warriors team and that should stand as long as the Rockets don’t completely collapse.

If the Rockets lock up the top seed quickly enough, they can start to manufacture rest for James Harden, Chris Paul, Eric Gordon, and any other Rockets who are fatigued or needing rest. Keeping your core fresh and getting them healthy from any nagging injuries is something that many teams won’t have the luxury of doing.

Play your game for 48 minutes. That’s the final piece of the puzzle for the Rockets. For whatever reason, there is a league-wide habit of defaulting to one-on-one possessions that end in contested, long jump shots when the game gets into the final couple of minutes. Don’t do that, Rockets. Don’t do that, James Harden. You are having tremendous success with how you play basketball for the first 46 minutes so play the same way over the final two.

Daryl Morey has put together a Rockets club that is set to break organizational records and lead the franchise and city into one of the most anticipated postseasons in team history. If they simply follow my “how to close” rules, we’ll be setting up for another parade and tasting the tears of our vanquished opponents.





 

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Yordan Alvarez came up big in Game 5. Composite image by Jack Brame.

The Astros can win the pennant Friday night. Can't dangle the carrot any closer in front of the face than that. Taking the last two games at Fenway Park has the Astros in excellent position, but any notion that a third American League championship in five years is now inevitable, is silly. The Astros are probably 80 percent or better to advance, but of course the Red Sox could win games six and seven at Minute Maid Park à la the Nationals in the World Series two years ago. The Astros had all the momentum after winning three straight in D.C., came home for the coronation, and pfffft. You have momentum...until you don't. It's nothing to bank on. The Red Sox had all the "mo" after clobbering the Astros in games two and three of this AL championship series. Then Jose Altuve crushed the eighth inning tying home run in game four, ahead of the seven run volcanic eruption of a ninth inning. Nine more Astro runs later in game five, and here we are.

One key distinction that makes the Astros hand look stronger up 3-2 now than vs. the Nats, the Red Sox don't have Stephen Strasburg and Max Scherzer ready to pitch. Like Framber Valdez vs. Chris Sale in game five, game six is another starting pitching rematch. Alvin native Nathan Eovaldi grossly outpitched Luis Garcia in game two. We'll see if Sox manager Alex Cora winds up regretting even more using Eovaldi to start the fateful game four ninth inning. Eovaldi only threw 24 pitches, but three nights later we'll see what and how much he has in the tank.

After pitching horribly against the White Sox and then the Red Sox, and then citing a sore knee, Luis Garcia is his own huge question mark. So was Valdez before Wednesday spinning one of the great postseason pitching performances in Astros' history. Framber was awful in each of his first two postseason starts, absolutely magnificent in cruising through eight innings in game five. Should the Sox force Game Seven, Valdez certainly is a relief option on two days rest. Jose Urquidy would start, opposite Eduardo Rodriguez in a game three rematch.

Valdez and the Astros hope his next outing is Tuesday night in game one of the World Series. Ideally, at Minute Maid Park against the Atlanta Braves. Alas, the defending champion Dodgers remain alive and kicking, having won their fourth do or die game already in this postseason to send the National League Championship Series back to Atlanta. Now, if somehow we knew as fact that the Astros are going to win the World Series, I'd estimate approximately 99 percent of Astros' fans would prefer to beat L.A. Since we don't know that the Astros are going to win it all, getting the Braves would be more favorable for the Astros, if for no other reason than the Astros would get home-field advantage. Should the Braves make it, among other factoids Charlie Morton would be in his third World Series with three different teams in the last five seasons (Astros in 2017, Rays last year, Braves this). If the Braves can close out the Dodgers Saturday, Morton is Atlanta's likely game one starter at MMP. Provided the Astros are the AL Champs of course.

Watt a matchup for the Texans

The Texans play at Arizona Sunday. Yeah, and? You imagine that J.J. Watt and DeAndre Hopkins find the two team's current situations amusing? The Texans are a 1-5 stink bomb that will keep on stinking. The Cardinals are 6-0 and an emerging Super Bowl contender. While Deshaun Watson continues collecting about 600 thousand dollars per week to do nothing (and waiting to become a Miami Dolphin?), Kyler Murray has made the leap to upper echelon NFL quarterback.

Buzzer Beaters:

1. Decisions, decisions. Astros-Red Sox game 6 or Rockets home opener vs. Thunder. Tough call?

2. The Rockets will regularly be overmatched and probably lose 55 games or more again this season. At least they have young talent to offer some hope. The Texans presently have near nothing.

3. Best 2021 Astros' postseason journey signature food: Bronze-Atlanta/Los Angeles, anything? Silver-Chicago, deep dish pizza Gold-Boston, lobster roll

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