ROAD RULES

NBA, Rockets should no-look pass on these outrageous rule changes

Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images.

Done deal. The NBA is back. Twenty-two teams will convene in quarantine at Disney's ESPN Wide World of Sports in Orlando in July to wrap up the regular season before heading to the playoffs that will end in October. The Rockets are assured of a playoff spot, no worries or drama there.

Now comes the tricky part. Since the last eight games of the regular season, a possible play-in tournament, the playoffs and NBA Finals will be played on three neutral-site courts in Florida, there will be no home court advantage between finishing the regular season in first place or just squeaking into the playoffs.

That's not normal and not really fair. There should be some reward for being the top seed and handicap for being the eighth seed. Normally, the higher seed gets to play more games at home, especially the seventh game (if necessary). Home court advantage is huge in the NBA. Consider this: in the Eastern Conference, the top eight teams in the current standings all have a winning record at home. Same thing in the Western Conference, the top eight teams have a winning record at home.

Simply put, most NBA games end with the home team winning, the road team losing. At Disney, only one team will play at home, sort of, and that's the Orlando Magic, currently sitting in eighth place in the East. But even they won't play on their home court at Amway Center. All 16 playoff teams will play every game at the Disney complex.

The win-at-home, lose-away pattern always confused me. When NBA teams travel, they fly on private jets, stay at 5-star hotels with extra-long beds and fluffy pillows, and eat in fine restaurants. They don't have to worry about getting tickets for their next-door neighbor. Nobody's bugging them to take out the garbage or pick up the kids from school. On the road, there is a much smaller chance of their wives bumping into their girlfriends. I once asked ESPN color analyst and former Houston coach Jeff Van Gundy, what's so hard about winning on the road? It should be the other way around, NBA teams should play better and win more on the road. Van Gundy didn't understand it, either.

Some ideas are being tossed around, how to give an edge to the higher seed in the 2020 NBA playoffs. After the opening tip, the higher seed should get the ball to start the second, third and fourth quarters. Seriously? That's just silly and not the way the game is played.

The higher seed should get first pick of hotels at Disney World. Seriously? Disney has enough high-end resort properties to handle all the teams. The Grand Floridian has amazing croissants at breakfast, btw.

The higher seed should be allowed to bring its actual home court, piece by piece, to Orlando. Seriously? The schedule will be played at an accelerated pace at Disney arenas. There won't be enough time to swap out logos and different colored paint "in the paint." Besides, courts are pretty much the same throughout the league. It's not like the old days, when the Boston Garden parquet floor was creaky and the Celtics knew where the dead spots were.

The higher seed should designate one player who will be allowed seven personal fouls instead of the usual NBA limit of six. Seriously? This would allow a goon more playing time to create havoc. Where have you gone, Bill Laimbeer?

Other "advantages" would include giving the higher seed coach an extra challenge, a total waste of time in the NBA. Higher seeds would be allowed to pick their first-round opponents. Isn't that how boxing works? More ideas are just plain silly, like the higher seeded team can bring their arena announcer to yell "Defense" or "Everybody gets a free Chick-fil-A sandwich!" Or the higher seeded team can bring its cheerleaders. They might as well propose playing shirts vs. skins. I'd love to see NBA teams play half-court and "winners out," like in the schoolyard.

All of these ideas have, in the words of George Costanza, "absolute zero" chance of being approved.

The thing about basketball is, it's a beautiful, easy-to-understand sport. Put the ball in the basket. Most NBA games build to heart-pounding excitement, still undecided with two minutes left. There's no need to gimmick or tinker with anything. It'd be stupid to play the regular season with one set of rules, the playoffs with different rules. Bottom line: higher seeded teams don't need an extra advantage if the games are played at a neutral site. The higher seed already has the only advantage that matters: better players.

Here's one advantage that does make sense to me. If games are played day and night, let the higher seeded team pick the start time. Rockets fans know that James Harden does his best work at night. Can you start 'em after midnight?

We're all thrilled that the NBA is back in business. The games will look and sound a whole lot different in 2020, however. There will be no fans in the stands. More than any other sport, fans are right on top of the action at NBA games. Arenas shake and rattle the fourth quarter, when the home team inevitably rallies to win at the buzzer. Athletes feed off fans' energy. For example, tennis star Roger Federer has said, "It would be difficult to play behind closed doors. I can't imagine playing in an empty stadium." Of course, Federer is so popular, wherever in the world he plays, it's a home match for him. I like DeSean Jackson's suggestion when sports are played without fans: mic up the players. On the Outside the Lane podcast, he said, "Let fans see what really goes on between the white lines. It gets crazy, bro ... the conversations we back and forth on."

Here's hoping the NBA plays it straight in Orlando, even though Florida is where weird was invented.

The big winners (but eventually losers) with the NBA returning: sports gamblers. Vegas currently has the Rockets as fourth favorites to win the title, behind the Lakers, Bucks and Clippers. The Rockets, playing weird small ball, have a shot. But I wouldn't bet on it.

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The Astros suffered a heartbreaking loss to the Yankees Thursday. Composite image by Brandon Strange.

After an impressive two-game sweep of the NL-best Mets at home earlier in the week, the Astros took to the road to begin a four-game series with the league-best Yankees on Thursday night. To little surprise, the series started with a bang (no, not a trash can bang) in more ways than one, confirming that this series should be a must-watch this weekend.

New York's comeback proves no lead will be safe

Right from the get-go, the loud Yankee Stadium faithful had their chance to rain boos down on Jose Altuve before showing some pleasure as he led off the series by being hit by a pitch. They were quickly, though only temporarily, quieted as Altuve would come in to score two batters later on a three-run blast by Alex Bregman.

Three-run homers seemed to be a theme, as New York would get one of their own to tie the game off the bat of Giancarlo Stanton to tie the game, then Yordan Alvarez continued his dominant June by pushing the Astros back in front by three with another three-run bomb in the third, making it 6-3. That lead held through to the bottom of the ninth, where instead of holding it, Ryan Pressly issued two walks to set up the fourth homer of the game to tie things again before Aaron Judge would get a walk-off single to complete the impressive comeback.

Not only will we get to sit back and watch the slug-fest between Yordan and Judge this weekend, but it looks like with Alex Bregman swinging well again to round out the top of Houston's order, the Astros may be getting closer to their full power. So far in June, these two teams sit third and fourth in on-base percentage, with the Astros at .351 and the Yankees right behind at .350. That means we should continue to see scoring opportunities on both sides that can tilt momentum one way or the other as these lineups try to battle against the opposing pitcher.

How will the aces fare

Verlander vs. Judge, and Cole vs. Alvarez, need I say more? Although we won't see Justin Verlander go up against Gerrit Cole in the same game in this series (they should go head to head next Thursday, however), they will pitch on back-to-back days, with Houston's ace going Friday night and New York's on Saturday afternoon. Verlander is coming off his worst start of the year, a three and two-thirds inning outing where the White Sox put up seven runs, four earned, against him and knocked him out early to give him his third loss and increased his ERA from 1.94 to 2.30.

The last time he faced the Yankees was in the Bronx in the 2019 playoffs, in ALCS Game 5, where he went seven frames while allowing four runs, all on two homers in the first inning, which is all New York needed to grab the 4-1 victory to make it a 3-2 Houston lead in the series, which the Astros would go on to clinch in Game 6. So, with the double dose of bad taste in his mouth, it will be interesting to see if he can use that as the fuel to get back to the phenomenal form he's had this year or if the Yankees try to jump on him early like they did nearly three years ago.

Cole, meanwhile, is fresh off of two quality starts in a row against the Rays, where he allowed just one run on six hits with nineteen strikeouts over 13.1 innings of work. He's had his share of strife this season, though, including a seven-run shelling by the Twins earlier this month, along with a start in April where he couldn't make it through two innings against the Tigers. He's had success against his former club, most notably a complete-game shutout in Houston last July with twelve K's and holding the Astros to just three hits.

If the series opener was any indication, we are in for the treat of a playoff-caliber matchup, if not a potential ALCS preview that we may see in October. The Yankees showed why they have the best record and are the hottest team in baseball on Thursday night, but the Astros were only a good outing from their closer away from having a relatively lopsided win. The rivalry is real; the competition is close, and we get to enjoy the show.

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