The Rockets Report

Losing streak ends with win over Lakers, but Harden to miss significant time

James Harden's injury will test the Rockets. Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Last week was a series of extremes for the Rockets, as they varied between crushing defeats and thrilling victories on the way to a 1-2 record on the week. In spite of the recent slump, the Rockets still maintain a two-game lead on the division and are second in the western conference overall.

Looking to address their depth issues in the wake of a rash of injuries, the Rockets added Houston-native guard/forward Gerald Green to the team last Thursday. The signing came at a critical time as superstar James Harden fell to injury on Sunday with a hamstring injury.

Game 33: Rockets at Boston Celtics (L, 98-99)

The Rockets had lost three in a row heading into their match up with one of the best teams in the league. With Chris Paul still sidelined with injury, the Rockets nevertheless jumped out to a surprisingly dominant lead following a 30-12 first quarter. The lead ballooned up to as much as 26 points before the Celtics began chipping away towards an incredible comeback. With Clint Capela also out with an injury, Boston pounded the inside and with three seconds remaining in the game, the Celtics took their first lead of the night. Two subsequent offensive fouls by James Harden would seal the Rockets defeat and stretch the losing streak to four in what was possibly Houston’s worst loss of the season.

Game 34: Rockets at Washington Wizards (L, 121-103)

Game two of the northeast back-to-back series provided the same result as the night before, despite the return of Paul to the lineup. The tired-looking Rockets squad shot an abysmal 29% from behind the line on 48 attempts, and the Wizards cruised to a victory. Harden finished with 20 points, followed by Gerald Green and Eric Gordon with 18 and 16 respectively.

Game 35: Rockets vs Los Angeles Lakers (W, 148-142)

On New Year’s Eve the Rockets and Lakers finished 2017 with a spectacular performance that required two overtimes to determine a winner. The Rockets dug in late defensively to erase a 17-point deficit and draw even with the Lakers, before a last second offensive rebound and put back by P.J. Tucker--his only points of the night--snapped Houston’s five-game losing streak. Harden would exit the game late in the fourth with a hamstring injury, leaving Paul to guide Houston through both overtimes. Paul delivered, finishing with 28 points, 10 assists and 6 rebounds in the last second victory. Harden exited the game with 40 points and 11 assists.

Takeaways

The Rockets are about to do something they haven’t had to do much of since Harden was traded to Houston: play without James Harden. Harden sustained a hamstring strain which will sideline him for at least two weeks—the longest stint he’s ever spent on the injured list. This sheds light on one of the most undervalued aspect of Harden’s overall game--his durability. In the past four seasons, he’s only missed one game to injury. The Rockets are still equipped to win without him, now that Paul and Capela have returned from injury, but it remains to be seen how a Harden-less Houston team can perform if his absence becomes more extended.

Gerald Green’s signing is an example of yet another successful midseason free agent signing that has proved—at least for now—to be paying off. Green is an extremely athletic back court addition and a career .362 three-point shooter. Not including the Boston game which was the day he was signed, Green has averaged 14 points per game in almost 25 minutes per game off the bench.

Looking Ahead:

This week the Rockets have three games with a back-to-back on Wednesday and Thursday. Wednesday they will take on the Magic at Orlando, before returning home for a midseason test against the conference-leading Golden State Warriors. Houston will then head back out on the road against the Detroit Pistons on Saturday. The loss of Harden is a huge blow to the Rockets, but this is still a very dangerous team as long as Capela and Paul are still healthy enough to contribute significant minutes. I expect an easy with against a rebuilding Magic team, followed by a loss against the Warriors and a rebound win against a surprisingly tough Pistons team.

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The Astros need to beat up on the lowly Rangers. Composite image by Jack Brame.

Collectively so far this season the Astros would not make for very good garbage men. Meaning they haven't been so good at taking out the trash. Swept in a series at Detroit when the Tigers were terrible, swept at Minute Maid Park by the sorry Orioles, swept in an early season series at the Rangers. Presently the Rangers are an atrocity. A nine game losing streak has them 35-62, buried deeply in last place in the American League West, 23 games behind the Astros. So the Astros need to whip up on them in this weekend's three game set, before the Astros head west for a three city road trip with stops in Seattle, San Francisco, and Los Angeles.

15. The number of home runs Jose Altuve has hit over his last 37 games. Multiply by four and that's a 60 homers in 148 games pace. Over those 37 games, Altuve is batting just .242. But slugging .577.

.029. Carlos Correa's batting average dating back 10 games played. One hit in his last 34 at bats. 14 strikeouts and just one walk over the stretch. That is what you call a funk. Certainly not a way to curry 300 million dollar contract offers.

The Rangers have just two 100 loss seasons in their history, their first two seasons after becoming the Rangers upon moving from Washington D.C. In 1972 the Ted Williams managed squad went 62-100, Ted quit, and the next year the Rangers finished 57-105. If the Astros sweep them this weekend, the Rangers will be on pace to lose 105 games.

It will be a decade ago this October that the Rangers came as close to winning a World Series as any team has ever come without winning the Series. In 2011 the Rangers carried a three games to two lead into game six at St. Louis. The Rangers led game six 7-5 with two on, two out, and two strikes in the bottom of the ninth. The Cardinals' David Freese drilled a ball toward the base of the right field wall. Rangers' right fielder Nelson Cruz didn't make an error but didn't play the ball well, going back awkwardly and reaching out at the last second as if afraid of the wall. It went for a two run triple to tie the game. Two innings later Freese hit a game winning homer to force game seven.

The inning before that the Rangers again came within one strike of winning it all. A Josh Hamilton two run homer had the Rangers up 9-7 going to the bottom of the 10th. The Cards got within 9-8. With the tying run on second and two out, Rangers' Manager Ron Washington opted to intentionally walk Albert Pujols. Albert was still a tremendous player in 2011 (his last with the Redbirds), but he was not better than Lance Berkman that season, definitely not against right-handed pitching. Walking Pujols brought up Berkman to face right-hander Scott Feldman (a matchup of former Astro and future Astro). Berkman lined a two-two pitch to center field tying the game 9-9, ahead of Freese's 11th inning walk-off homer. One of the most incredible games in World Series history.

NCAA

Quite the story hitting that Texas and Oklahoma may be plotting to bolt the Big 12 for the Southeastern Conference. That neither UT, OU, nor the SEC denied it has smoke billowing. The Sooners have won the last six Big 12 football championships. The Longhorns last won in 2009. Oklahoma St., Kansas St., Baylor, TCU, all have more recently won at least a share of the conference title. An SEC UT could be looking at being in a division with Oklahoma, Alabama, LSU, and Texas A&M. UT marketing folks should be exploring a huge sponsorship deal with 7-Eleven. You know, Big Gulp. But as usual, follow the money.

The week ahead…

Wednesday: The Texans open training camp! Wait. Delete the exclamation point. Whither Deshaun Watson?

Thursday: The NBA Draft. Unless the Rockets pull off a thunderbolt of a trade to move up to number one and select Cade Cunningham, the winds of opinion are blowing in the direction of the Rockets taking wing Jalen Green second overall pick. That would be fine. Green is generally considered the most potential-laden explosive scorer on the board. The Rockets can use just about everything, a premium wing scorer would be excellent.

Friday: The MLB trade deadline. Does James Click bolster the Astros' shaky bullpen. The Astros have also been linked to Marlins' center fielder Starling Marte. Growing from his wretched start Myles Straw has been plenty acceptable. Free agent-to-be Marte would be a notable upgrade.

Buzzer Beaters:

1. First big beat the deadline win goes to the Rays. 41-year-old designated hitter Nelson Cruz still mashes. Simple frame of reference: he's been notably better than Yordan Alvarez this year.

2. The delayed by a year 2020 Summer Olympics are underway. Any interest at all?

3. Baseball's greatest Cruzes: Bronze-Jose Jr. Silver-Nelson Gold-Jose Sr.

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