THE PALLILOG

Let's discuss the most intriguing subplots of Rockets vs. Thunder

Composite image by Jack Brame.

Last week in this space I wrote that if planning on winning the short season American League West title the Astros were strongly advised to not get swept in Oakland. They then proceeded to get swept in Oakland. Now after taking two out of three from a bad Giants' team the Astros enter the weekend at 8-10, four and a half games behind the Athletics and presently not even in a Wild Card position. The Astros remain a pretty solid pick to make the eight team AL tournament, but it has been jarring to see them reduced from their superpower status of the last three years to a mediocre squad. Hey, no team would simply roll on after losing its two dominant starting pitchers as the Astros did with Gerrit Cole leaving for the Yankees and then Justin Verlander lasting one start. Add in a decimated bullpen, a thus far awful Jose Altuve, George Springer having missed time to injury and not hitting his weight, and with this season's playoff format 8-10 is nowhere near the end of the world.

The Astros get the lousy Mariners for a three game series this weekend at Minute Maid Park. While it's a tough standard to say anything short of a sweep would be a disappointment, anything short of a sweep would be a disappointment. Certainly with regard to hopes of winning the West. The Astros have seven head-to-head matchups remaining with the A's.

Countdown to liftoff for Rockets vs. Thunder

Speaking of disappointing, what a buzzkill that thanks to a quad strain Russell Westbrook seemingly won't answer the bell for the Rockets to start the playoffs Tuesday. The hope is Westbrook misses no more than one game, and with basically round the clock treatment through the weekend maybe not that. It's simple: with Westbrook the Rockets are slight favorites over Chris Paul and the Oklahoma City Thunder, without him they are underdogs.

The Thunder may also be down a starting guard to start the series after rookie Luguentz Dort sprained a knee Wednesday. That's a vastly lesser loss than Westbrook for the Rockets, but it's a loss. Until his injury Dort started 28 straight games for OKC. He's a well-built tough defender who would take some of the defensive minutes trying to make James Harden's life more difficult. The Thunder backcourt is still strong. Paul had a terrific season and the four and a half month layoff wasn't a bad thing for his now 35-year-old legs which have betrayed CP3 at the end of full uninterrupted seasons in the past. Second year man 22-year-old Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is closing in on all-star level and is the Thunder's leading scorer. Dennis Schroeder is deserving of the Sixth Man of the Year Award.

In the frontcourt Danilo Galinari is very good and very key. We may look back and say whoever had the better series between Gallinari and Robert Covington is on the team headed to the second round. Getting Gilgeous-Alexander, Gallinari, and multiple first round picks in the Paul George to the Clippers trade was magnificent work by Thunder General Manager Sam Presti who is one of the best in the business. Coming into the season exactly no one would have predicted the Thunder to be as good as the Rockets. They have been, including taking the season series 2-1.

Weakness vs. weakness is one of the many subplots of Rockets vs. Thunder. The downsized Rockets are a lousy rebounding team. Giving up second chance opportunities and baskets has been a real problem. The Thunder has a legit big in center Steven Adams, but nonetheless ranks dead last in offensive rebounding percentage.

Another subplot: is Mike D'Antoni coaching for his job in this series? D'Antoni's contract is up at season's end. If the Rockets postseason graph reads 2018 Western Conference Final, 2019 Western Conference Semifinal, 2020 Western Conference out in the first round, how enthused would Tilman Fertitta be about re-upping D'Antoni at an upper tier salary? Despite the unusual circumstances under which this season is playing out, if the Rockets get bounced in the first round the season is an epic failure, the Westbrook for Paul trade looks bad, and the future would not look very bright. Flip the coin with a Rockets' series win, and we have a very interesting presumptive second round Rockets-Lakers matchup to savor.

With only a couple of arenas being used in the Orlando "bubble" there will be weekday matinee games through the first round. No way the Lakers or Clippers would be slotted in those. Rockets-Thunder play game one at 5:30 (Central time) Tuesday, game two 2:30 Thursday, game four 3:00 the following Monday.

Buzzer Beaters:

1. The Texans put on the pads for the first time Friday, inside four weeks to the September 10 season opener at Kansas City.

2. Of course most college football players want to play. They don't (and shouldn't) get to make the decision for institutions. And enough from coaches disingenuously spewing "it's all about the kids."

3. Best sherbet flavors on a blistering hot day: Bronze-lime Silver-orange Gold-watermelon

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ROCKETS BEAT THUNDER

Rockets blast Thunder in home opener, 124-91

Rockets take care of business in home opener. Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images.

The Houston Rockets had an impressive outing versus the Oklahoma City Thunder after an embarrassing loss against the Minnesota Timberwolves Wednesday night. They took care of business at home on Friday night, which was a surprising blowout. The Rockets didn't have to worry about Karl-Anthony Towns screaming at Alperen Sengun or Anthony Edwards telling Coach Silas to call a timeout. Instead, they took their frustrations out on the Thunder (another younger core).

"We responded and bounced back from that game 1," Silas said. "I wouldn't say it was taking anything out. It was just learning and applying to what you learn and that's going to be us this year. Applying to what you learn and getting better and having some games like we had the other day. Veteran teams have some games when they don't play as well they want."

Christian Wood led the way, as he controlled the paint on all aspects with rebounding and putbacks. He played an incredible game after having a poor performance versus the Timberwolves. Silas showed complete trust in allowing Wood to open sets, as he walked the ball down the court several times, and in transition too. Wood became aggressive on the perimeter with open shooting and tough shots, and long strides towards the rim. He finished the night with 31 points and 13 rebounds off 66 percent shooting from the field.

The young core for the Thunder had a tough night defending Wood from every aspect. Hopefully, he keeps this play up. Silas loved the space that was created throughout the game for Wood, which included the help from Eric Gordon, as he continued to play better. Wood continues to develop underneath the Silas umbrella. He had a great feel for off-the-dribble shooting a few times. Wood becomes more dangerous when space is created on the court.

"It allows me to show what I can do. It allows the floor to be open and I can create for other guys and create for myself," Wood said.

As Gordon continues to impress, his teammate Kevin Porter Jr was amazed with his performance.

Gordon looked marvelous inside and outside of the paint, as it looked like a time ripple. The younger guards of the Thunder had a tough time staying in front of Gordon. His size and strength gave the Thunder a huge problem. Gordon is shooting the ball better too, as he is shooting the three-ball at 70 percent this season. Although it's a small sample size, Gordon is trying to overcome his shooting struggles from last year. Gordon finished with 22 points on 66 percent shooting versus the Thunder.

"EG is the biggest part of this squad," Porter said. He comes in and just scores. We need somebody off the bench to do that. He is our guy when me and J come out, it's EG time and he knows that, and comes in aggressive. So much energy on the bench, and we need that every night from him if we want a chance to win."

As I recently mentioned Porter, his facilitation did look better versus the Thunder than the Timberwolves. Porter had nine turnovers in his first game but managed to have two Friday night. He made great slip passes and found open teammates in the open corner. Porter forced a good number of passes versus the Timberwolves but looked more relaxed Friday night. The hardest position in the NBA is the point guard position, but Silas will not allow Porter to fail. Instead of nine turnovers, Porter dished out nine assists. Silas said:

"Bounce back right, going from nine turnovers to nine assists… I think he had two turnovers tonight, which is great. He is making plays for his teammates, and he was really focused."

Porter's shiftiness and creative ability allowed his teammates to get open looks near the rim. He had 18 points because of his step-back threes and first step going towards the basket. Thankfully, Porter is a great ball handler, which confuses defenders on different spots on the court. It's almost like watching a ballerina skate on ice in the Olympics. Hopefully, his confidence continues to get better throughout the year. Porter shot the three-ball at 50 percent tonight. Efficiency is key for Porter this year.

"I'm just trying to let the game slow down," Porter said. "I had a lot of turnovers last game and I just wanted to piggyback and learn from them and learn from some of my forced passes and reads. And sometimes I still force it a little bit. My guys hate that, and sometimes I'm still passive and I'm working on that. When to pass and score and bounce it out, and tonight I felt like I did a good job of that."

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