FOUR KEY POINTS

Observations from Rockets training camp and preseason (Part 2)

As the Rockets returned back from their long, grueling trip overseas, they returned to questions ranging from their on-going China controversy to actual basketball stuff. Today, we're going to break from all the China craziness and just focus on all the interesting basketball stuff. (Believe it or not, basketball is being played at the Toyota Center in the background of this geopolitical mess.) Without further ado, here's part two of observations from training camp.

‚Äč1. Ryan Anderson will play backup center (sometimes)

One of the interesting developments of preseason has been the Rockets experimenting with newly added forward Ryan Anderson at center with second units. Some of this may be out of necessity, as center Nene Hilario is out with an adductor injury and may be severely limited due to the structure of his incentives-based contract. Also, the Rockets may implement a rest schedule for Tyson Chandler, 38 years old, as they did with Hilario.

"Definitely. I think we can look at that," said Mike D'Antoni when asked about Anderson playing center. "You know Tyson, probably, some back-to-backs won't play. So obviously, there's some [minutes] there. You can go small with him, although he's big."

Anderson seemed more than open to the idea and even playfully encouraged media to refer to him as a center from now on.

"It's definitely a role we talked about here," said Anderson. "I think it's something I can be really effective at. This team can play in a lot of different ways so that's just one of them."

Chandler will likely be the primary option at backup center, but the Rockets have been known to experiment even with a full roster.

"I think [center will be an option] obviously depending on matchups and the way teams play," said Anderson. "Some teams might want to go big and we can change the lineup around to where I might play the four. It's just the way the league is now. A lot of teams go small and it could be a different dynamic of a lineup with me playing at the five."

2. Rockets players slowly adjusting to Russell Westbrook

For most of the early training camp, the questions have all been about how James Harden and Russell Westbrook can fit together.

"The first possession out of the gate, [Westbrook] went to the basket off a pick and roll, and he kicked it out to me and I hit a catch-and-shoot three," said Harden, who says he can see more catch and shoot opportunities for himself alongside Westbrook. "It just depends on how teams guard us. Throughout the course of the year, we're going to see so many different defenses. We'll take whatever they give us and try to execute."

So far, nobody on the Rockets has questioned whether or not this will be a cohesive combo. Rockets head coach Mike D'Antoni, who has been enthusiastic about the pairing dating back to September, has liked what he's seen in the early going.

"It's easy. They can play together," reiterated D'Antoni at Sunday's practice. "It'll be an on-going process all year. They play off each other pretty well. The synergy there is pretty good."

However, there's also real questions about how other players will adjust to Westbrook. Westbrook, a much different player than Chris Paul or Harden, plays at a frenetic pace and for some - like athletic, young forward Danuel House - that's a welcome change.

"He pushes the ball in transition really fast, so filling the lanes is going to be a lot of fun this year," said House. "[We're] getting downhill quicker, scoring easier points. It's actually going to be good for the whole team because we can up the ante on our transition points."

House raises a valid point. Through four preseason games, the Rockets have been the third fastest team in the league - a drastic change to where they were last season (27th in the regular season, 25th in the preseason).

"We've always been a running team," said P.J. Tucker. "Now, that we have Russ, who's really good at pushing the ball and getting in the paint and making plays for people. We want to push it even more."

Westbrook, smirking, hinted that guys haven't quite adjusted to his pace yet, but claims that it's a process and the Rockets won't figure out all of the nuances in preseason anyways.

"We're getting there," said Westbrook. "The season hasn't even started yet. I only played two games. We got time. We're still figuring it out and figuring out the best way to play on both sides [of the ball]."

One thing that's been so pronounced is just how loud Westbrook is in a practice setting. Even when practice was opened up the fans on Monday, Westbrook didn't let up on the intensity. The trash talking and swearing and Rockets teammates have loved that side of Westbrook so far.

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3. Turnovers may be a problem for Houston

A known risk when the Rockets traded for Russell Westbrook in July would be the spike in turnovers. Chris Paul's historically good assist to turnover ratio had been a nice counterbalance to James Harden over the past couple seasons, but Westbrook is the complete opposite in that respect. Through four preseason games, the Rockets are eighth in turnover percentage.

"The turnovers are killing us right now," said Mike D'Antoni. "Way too many turnovers. That leads to easy baskets for the other team."

Houston will try and do what they can, but looking at the way their roster is currently structured, it's hard to see turnovers not being their achilles heel this season.

"Offensively, we played very well, but we turned the basketball over too much," agreed James Harden. "We averaged 19 turnovers the last few games. Last game [against Toronto] we had like 9 or 10 turnovers and gave away 15 points."

4. Who fills Gerald Green's void?

According to ESPN's Tim MacMahon (and confirmed by Mike D'Antoni), it seems Gerald Green suffered a significant, potentially season-ending foot injury. Green may not be one of Houston's core seven players, but he's been consistent in their rotation over the past couple years. For regular season purposes, this injury is pretty significant.

The obvious question now is who takes those leftover minutes for the Rockets. Ben McLemore has been a popular name floated as a potential replacement for Green's eighth man role, but D'Antoni seems to be hesitant to nail down one specific replacement and will more likely have the role filled by committee.

"Austin would get more minutes, Ben [McLemore] could be, Thabo [Sefolosha] could be, Chris Clemons could be," said D'Antoni. "We're still working that out.

Fortunately for Houston, they have a decent amount of time to find another long-term replacement on the wing before the playoffs. If they do choose to search for market solutions, it does appear that they may be forced to pay the luxury tax this season which they tried to avoid last season. It's still very early to make a definitive determination though.

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Game One Is Pivotal For Both Teams

ALWC Game 1 Preview: Astros vs. Twins

Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images

It might not have been pretty, and may not have met pre-season expectations, especially with all the injuries and headwinds along the way. Yet, the Astros' regular-season was enough to get them into the playoffs, and as we are likely to find out with this aptly-named Wild Card Round, all it takes is a ticket to the dance.

A losing record at the end of the first 60 is now a thing of the past. Everyone starts 0-0, needing to take two of three against their opponent to move forward into the Divisional Series. Here's a quick breakdown and some facts about Houston's first game against the Minnesota Twins:

Game Facts

When: Tuesday, 1:00 PM Central

Where: Target Field - Minneapolis, Minnesota

TV: ABC

Streaming: ESPN App

Pitching Matchup: Zack Greinke vs. Kenta Maeda

Series: Tied 0-0.

Series Schedule

Date & Time (Central) Location Pitching Matchup
Game 1 Tue 9/29, 1:00 PM Target Field, Minneapolis Greinke vs. Maeda
Game 2 Wed 9/30, 12:00 PM Target Field, Minneapolis TBD vs. Berrios+
Game 3* Thu 10/1, TBD Target Field, Minneapolis TBD vs. Pineda+

* If necessary.
+ Projected starters.

Game Storylines

Did Houston pack their postseason bats?

Over the last three years, the Astros have started the playoffs with wins in their first game, and it may be in part due to one key component: scoring first via home runs. In 2017, it was an Alex Bregman solo homer off of Chris Sale in the first inning to start the scoring against the Red Sox. In 2018, it was Bregman again, this time a solo shot in the fourth off of Corey Kluber of the Indians. In 2019, it was Jose Altuve with a two-run bomb against Tyler Glasnow as they'd go on to take game one against the Rays.

Can they make it four straight years? If so, they'll have to do it against another formidable pitcher in Kenta Maeda, who allowed just nine home runs in his eleven regular-season starts, only two of which were at Target Field. Also, those three games mentioned earlier were at Minute Maid Park, where the Astros had the support of their home crowd, along with the comfort of their own stadium. This year, they'll start on the road, and in the now-normal audience of cardboard cutouts. Having said that, if they can get their signature score-starting home run in the top of the first by one of their key bats, that could very well set the momentum in their favor to upset the Twins.

Which Greinke will we see?

On September 3rd, Zack Greinke went six innings while allowing three runs to the Rangers, still coming away with a win to improve him to 3-0 with a 2.91 ERA. That was his eighth start of the season, two of which he went six or more innings without allowing a single run, including an eight-inning gem at home against the Rockies.

In his final four starts after that, Greinke went 0-3 with a 6.53 ERA over that span, allowing four, five, three, and three earned runs, respectively, and unable to go more than six innings in any of them. That finished his year at 3-3 with a 4.03 ERA, not exactly riding a high into the postseason. So, can he hit the reset button and deal as he did in the early parts of the season? Or, will the Twins, who own the sixth-most homers as a team in 2020, find a wrinkle against him early that they can exploit? The answer to that, along with what run support his offense provides him, will be one of the game's deciding factors.

I don't need to tell anyone the obvious here; in a best-of-three series, taking the first game will be pivotal for both sides. Winning the first game and only needing one more is a tremendously more advantageous position to be in, instead of needing to win two straight to advance. It sets up for an entertaining series and set of matchups across the league. Get your popcorn ready.

Be sure to check SportsMap after the final out for an in-depth recap of the game, and follow me on Twitter for updates and reactions throughout each playoff game: @ChrisCampise

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