JOEL BLANK

Rockets bench remains a work in progress

Eric Gordon needs to up his game. Jonathan Daniel

The Rockets last two games should tell you all you needed to know about where they are as a team and how far they still have to go. Sure, the team has made great strides and made up ground in the Western Conference by winning five straight games, but losing back to back games to the Pistons and Cavaliers proved they still have a long way to go. Daryl Morey needs to take a hard look at his roster and in particular his bench and start working immediately to improve one of the worst second units among contending teams.

A year ago Houston finished the regular season with one of, if not THE best bunch of reserves in the NBA. They were deep, they could shoot, they were athletic and they had size and versatility to play multiple positions and both ends of the floor. This year they seem to have done a 180 and are lacking in almost every one of those characteristics. It didn't help that the Carmelo Anthony experiment screwed up everything from a continuity standpoint and forced every reserve to play a new role with different minutes, while being on the floor with different teammates than what they were used to. When Anthony departed, the rest of the roster scrambled to try and get back to their old roles while the team pressed to climb back into the top half of the Western Conference. It's been a work in progress all year for the entire team, but the reserves have had to shoulder a big load as they have struggled to make shots and hold a lead when the starters sit down.

When we start to dig deeper and try and find the root of all the issues the bench has been having, it has to start with Eric Gordon. EG has had the biggest fall off and suffered the most from the addition and then subtraction of Melo. First off, he was forced to defer to Anthony when they came in the game with the second unit, while still being counted on to be the primary ball handler. This was hard on Gordon because he has been a shoot first sniper since he joined the Rockets a few years ago. Having him on the floor with James Harden and Chris Paul, or at least one of the two superstars, has produced incredible results. Gordon was the 6th Man of the Year two seasons ago and a runner up last year. He was the beneficiary of teams double teaming the teams' two best players, giving Gordon wide open looks from all over the floor. So when you look at the stats this season, you will see EG taking a similar amount of shots and playing close to the same minutes as he did previously, but the quality of the looks and the players he is on the floor with has changed drastically and so have the results. His stats are down across the board and he has been mired in a horrible shooting slump for almost all of the teams' first 18 games. If this team is going to right the ship and improve the bench brigade, it all starts with Gordon finding his rhythm and making shots on a consistent basis.

The rest of the bench continues to struggle along with Gordon, but they are not counted on for as much offense on a nightly basis. That doesn't mean they get a pass or are off the hook, it just means that if they don't come in make shots everything is compounded. The new additions to the squad have not produced the results that Morey and company had hoped for and most of them came in with the huge disadvantage of being counted on to make shots while never being known as a shooter, especially from behind the arc. All of the newcomers may be younger and more athletic, but Michael Carter Williams, James Ennis, Gary Clark and Isaiah Hartenstein have a 25 letter alphabet with no "J" in it. Teams sag off these guys from almost anywhere on the court 15 feet and out and especially from 3-point range. The fans forget that last season with Ryan Anderson and Luc Mbah a Moute starting throughout the year, the bench had shooters all over with PJ Tucker, Gerald Green, Gordon and even Joe Jackson as a late add for insurance. As quick as fans wanted to see Ariza, Anderson and Luc head out the door, the fact that Morey didn't replace them with players that had similar skill sets has set this team back as much as adding Anthony did. The time is now to be active in the trade market and pursue players that shoot the 3-ball well, are athletic in transition and can defend on the other end. Jodie Meeks was just released by Milwaukee; bring him in and work him out to see if he has anything left in the tank. He is a career 37% three point shooter and had valuable, veteran experience. I have previously mentioned  names like Kyle Korver and Jeff Green as other vets that could come in and help bolster the bench. There is still time to make moves and improve this roster, but sooner rather than later would be nice for all those who have a rooting interest in seeing the Rockets return to being one of the top two teams in the west.

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Houston loses in San Francisco

Astros drop back-and-forth middle game to Giants to even series

Houston's offense couldn't keep up with the Giants on Saturday. Photo by Elsa/Getty Images.

With the impressive win in the opener to start the series, the Astros entered Saturday's middle game against the Giants with an opportunity to not just secure the series but surpass San Francisco for the best record in the league. They'd have to wait to take that crown, as the Giants would out-slug the Astros to even the series.

Final Score: Giants 8, Astros 6

Astros' Record: 64-41, first in the AL West

Winning Pitcher: Jay Jackson (2-0)

Losing Pitcher: Blake Taylor (2-3)

Teams trade blows early, Giants chase Greinke out early

The teams traded blows early in this one, with the Giants tagging Zack Greinke with six runs, all on homers. The first was a solo shot in the bottom of the second to start the scoring before hitting one in each inning through the fourth: two-run blasts in the third and fourth, then a go-ahead solo shot in the bottom of the fifth, putting them ahead 6-5 at the time. Greinke would face one more batter, allowing a single to end his lackluster day: 4.0 IP, 8 H, 6 R, 4 ER, 2 BB, 4 K, 4 HR, 93 P.

Houston's offense kept things close to try and keep Greinke in a position to win, going up 3-1 in the third on a two-run Aledmys Diaz homer and another coming in on an error. After San Francisco scored four unanswered to make it 5-3, Diaz homered again in the top of the fifth to cut the deficit to one run before Yuli Gurriel would tie it with an RBI double.

Astros stay in it, but Giants even the series by winning the slug-fest

With Greinke exiting with no outs in the fifth, Houston handed the ball to Phil Maton, acquired in the recent Myles Straw trade, to make his debut for his new team. He worked himself into a jam, allowing a single and hitting a batter to load the bases with one out, but was able to get back-to-back strikeouts to strike out the side and strand all three runners, keeping it a one-run game.

That proved pivotal in the top of the sixth, as with two outs, Martin Maldonado would launch a game-tying solo homer, making it 6-6. Blake Taylor took over out of the bullpen in the bottom of the inning but would face just three batters, getting two outs while leaving one on as Dusty Baker moved on to Cristian Javier. Javier would watch the Giants retake the lead, getting back-to-back singles to bring in a run and make it 7-6.

Javier stayed in the game in the bottom of the seventh, allowing a leadoff single but erasing it by striking out the next three batters. Still a 7-6 game in the bottom of the eighth, Yimi Garcia made his Astros debut but did not keep the score there, allowing a leadoff solo homer to make it a two-run game. The 8-6 score would go final as Houston's offense came up empty again in the top of the ninth, setting up a rubber game in the finale.

Up Next: The series finale will get underway at 3:05 PM Central on Sunday in San Francisco. Luis Garcia (7-5, 3.19 ERA) will take the mound for Houston, going opposite Logan Webb (4-3, 3.36 ERA) for the Giants.

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