Pallilo's View: Why aren't the Rockets creating more of a buzz?

James Harden is doing historic things.

Houston is in a bit of a sports malaise phase right now. That is in largest part on the 4-8 Texans, playing meaningless games other than to employees, their family members, close friends, and of course…gamblers. It certainly isn’t on the Rockets, their phenomenal start at 19-4 headed by the best offensive player on the planet these days in James Harden. So the other part of the Sports Houston ennui is on…Houston. On the individual level there are always plentiful reasons (not excuses, reasons) to not be in to a particular team, but on the broader scale it’s a bit of an indictment of a sports town when a team kicking tail and taking names has very little buzz attached to it.

No doubt the Astros’ dramatic run to World Series glory drained the emotional tank for many. It’ll be tough to ever have a Houston team generate the emotional investment that so many poured into the Astros earning history. So tough that I doubt that the Texans winning a Super Bowl would match it.  I just hope if the Rockets are playing in June most at least deem them worthy of paying attention.

The Chicago Bulls are an atrocity this season and going on 20 years removed from their last championship, yet they sell out every game in an arena much larger than Toyota Center. The Sacramento Kings last made the playoffs and last finished a winning season in 2006. The Kings are outdrawing the Rockets this season, barely, but they are. Yes the Kings are the only game in Sac-town but it’s a small town compared to Houston. The Dallas Mavericks have sold out every game this season. The Mavs stink. They stunk last season and haven’t won a playoff series since winning the championship in 2011. Uncomfortable reality for the south end of I-45: Dallas rates as a better sports town than Houston. Heck, the Rangers outdrew the Astros this year. And Dallas has the NHL. Pull it off Tilman Fertitta!

This is a Rockets town, when the Rockets win big. Wait, they are winning big…and…  

There is some hangover from the way the Rockets went out last year. James Harden was so awful in the humiliating elimination loss vs. the Spurs that until there is on court atonement in the postseason some just won’t pray at the Rockets’ altar. But that seems throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Three guys in the NBA are averaging 22 points and seven assists: LeBron James, Russell Westbrook, and James Harden. Harden put up at least 22 points and at least seven assists in the Rockets first 22 games! Durability is a component of greatness. The three seasons before this one Harden missed two games total: one because of a suspension for a below the belt shot to LeBron, the other because the Rockets basically made him sit out one late last season.

Harden is ascending toward all-time top 10 shooting guard status.  Michael Jordan is the unchallenged #1. Then come in either order Jerry West and Kobe Bryant. Then the tier with Dwyane Wade, Clyde Drexler, George Gervin, Ray Allen, Reggie Miller, old-timer shout-out Sam Jones, and a few other plausibles. To Houston-ize it: James Harden or Tracy McGrady?

So cool that Jose Altuve and JJ Watt this week shared Sports Illustrated Sports Person of the Year honors. Not the first time two guys in different sports in the same city share it. In 1979 Willie Stargell and Terry Bradshaw won as Pirate and Steeler. Altuve and Watt get there in some ways at diametrically opposite points in their careers. What a 2017 for Altuve. MVP, World Series champion, at or darn near the peak of his vast abilities. Altuve does good works off the field but fundamentally his SI salute is for his season on the field. 2017 for Watt on the other hand is the lowest point of his playing career. Just last week walking for the first time since his October tibial plateau fracture, on top of two major back surgeries, it’s unlikely that Watt will ever be an on-field superstar again. But what he did in the aftermath of Harvey laying waste to Houston, a noble goal of raising 200-thousand dollars for relief efforts, multiplied more than 185 times to more than 37 million raised, all on the back reverence for Watt?  Superduperstar.

Altuve has work to do to be a Hall of Famer. You know, if he bangs out 200 hits for another nine consecutive seasons Altuve would total 10 fewer hits than Craig Biggio? Altuve is the best second baseman since Joe Morgan, who is generally considered one of the four best second basemen of all time. None of the others (Rogers Hornsby, Eddie Collins, Nap Lajoie) played more recently than 80 years ago.

Watt meanwhile is probably a Hall of Famer already. With Terrell Davis in, Watt’s three Defensive Player of the Year Awards (only Lawrence Taylor matches that) should do it. Watt has no shot to match the quantitative stats of the all-time greats. He has more than 125 fewer sacks than Reggie White and Bruce Smith. Watt’s 76 sacks are exactly half as many as has Julius Peppers.  Ray Childress finished with 76 ½. But during his window of greatness Watt could hang with anybody who ever played. 15 years from now is there a Texan whose career you’d rather have had than Watt’s? The Texans sure need that answer to be DeShaun Watson. Or Rick Smith’s 26 years as General Manager will really have underwhelmed.

BUZZER BEATERS: 1. Thumbs up for egg nog, fruitcake not so much   2. LaVar Ball: Shut up and go away.   3. More appealing than committing to three hours of Texans-Niners: Bronze-watching paint dry.  Silver-watching grass grow.  Gold-snail races.

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Now my job: Texans feast on Lions

Photo by Getty Images.

Thanksgiving is full of tradition. There's the typical family gathering, large meal, and of course, football. Sometimes, new traditions are added and old ones are retired. I think the Texans did both in their impressive 41-25 win over the Lions in Detroit. Old traditions were carried on (Lions losing on Thanksgiving), some were put to rest (Texans not being able to get turnovers), and new ones were started (multiple passing touchdowns by Deshaun Watson in six straight games).

The fact that this defense got three turnovers in the game was unbelievable! They got all three in the first quarter within the span of eight plays. JJ Watt's pick-six was insane. He went for a batted ball, ended up catching it, and ran it in. They forced Jonathan Williams to fumble on the Lions' very next play from scrimmage and recovered it. On the Lions' next possession, the Texans recovered yet another fumble after the challenge was reversed. Great call by the coaching staff to challenge and win. The defense looked good. Tyrell Adams stood out because he was in on those two fumbles, made 17 total tackles with 14 of them being solo tackles. They also brought pressure that seemed to make Matthew Stafford very inaccurate and resulted in four sacks. I give defensive coordinator Anthony Weaver credit for knowing he needs to blitz to get pressure, but the run defense has to improve.

The offense kept the tempo up in this game as well. The spread and hurry-up were used to keep the Lions already staggered defense off balance. Knowing the Lions were without a couple defensive backs, I thought it would be the perfect marriage of their defense and the Texans' offense. A buddy asked before the game about the line (Texans -3.5) and the over/under (52.5). I told him bet the Texans and the over because neither team can play defense and both have good quarterbacks. Offensive coordinator Tim Kelly put together another good game plan and Watson executed it flawlessly. One route combo I saw later on in the game I particularly enjoyed. Two receivers were tight to the left side. Cooks ran a hook/curl and settled in the middle of the zone while Fuller ran a vertical route. Duke Johnson ran a swing route to that same side. It left Cooks wide open as the attention went to Johnson in the flat, Fuller deep, and the action to the other play side. Route combos are important because it gives the quarterback different reads as he goes through his progressions and lets him pick apart the defense based on what he sees. Combine that with Watson's play and the way Kelly has changed his play calling now that he's liberated from he who shall not be named, we're seeing a beautiful thing.

As good as things were, there's still room for improvement. The defense gives up way too many easy yards, both run and pass. They can't get pressure bringing only four and will often give up big plays if the blitz is picked up. Plus the run defense is still an issue as evidenced by the Lions' first possession of the second half. The Lions ran the ball 10 plays straight for a total of 58 yards on that drive. Utterly ridiculous! Watson was good (17/25 318 yards and four touchdowns), but he missed two more touchdowns with passes slightly off, and continues to hold onto the ball too long at times. The difference between these two issues I've presented here is the fact that Watson has so played well, his "issues" are minor and very correctable, while the defense is terrible and there's no easy fix in sight. But let Romeo Crennel and Anthony Weaver tell it, they're getting the most out of these guys and they're playing disciplined.

The thought that this team may actually creep into the playoff picture may take shape better after next week if they can beat the Colts. I doubt it, but it is getting interesting. Let's see what else happens around them because they need help getting there.

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