The Pallilog

Rockets face tough stretch, but 3 seed is within range

Mike D'Antoni has a different looking roster now. Getty Images.

Don't look now (actually, do look now!), but the Rockets are within a game and a half of third place in the Western Conference. After two clunker shooting games in a row James Harden went nuts on Miami with 58 points Thursday night, so the Rockets roll with a four game winning streak into arguably their toughest three game stretch of the season. They're at Boston Sunday afternoon (though the Celtics have slumped badly of late) then at Toronto Tuesday before coming home for Philadelphia Friday. If the Rockets win two of those three they are a very good bet to reach 50 wins. 50 would be a big come down from last season's 65, but a fine recovery from this season's lame 11-14 start.

Call to arms

The first week of spring training games has produced the first mild "uh ohs" for the Astros. 40 percent of their projected starting rotation is ailing already. Collin McHugh lasted one inning of his spring debut before reporting a sore back. Josh James is down with a quad strain that has already knocked him out of the race for the fifth starter slot he was considered most likely to earn. But the Astros have depth options starting with Framber Valdez and Brad Peacock, plus Forrest Whitley almost certainly arrives mid-season. As long as Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole remain healthy and effective, the Astros rotation should be just fine. Just not as good as last season's.

Big deal

So, by one basic measure the Phillies got a "deal" in landing Bryce Harper with a 13 year $330 million dollar contract. Harper's average annual salary is "only" about $25.4 million dollars. Manny Machado gets $30 per over 10 seasons with the Padres, Nolan Arenado locked in $32.5 per over the next eight years with the Rockies. Only Harper has had a better offensive season then Alex Bregman's 2018. Four seasons to go before Bregman can hit the market, if he hasn't by then signed an Astros contract that could enable him to buy most of his hometown of Albuquerque.

Decisions, decisions

The Texans have until Tuesday to use the franchise tag on Jadeveon Clowney and keep him off the free agent market. He's gotten better doing so less than in the past, but Bill O'Brien this week chose to utter crappola in saying the Texans haven't reached a decision yet. Unless they reach a long term contract agreement before Tuesday 3 p.m. Central Time, of course the Texans will tag Clowney. They'd be football morons not to do so. Texans' brass certainly has never proven itself football geniuses, but they're not morons.

Catching back on

How about Jason Witten leaving the Monday Night Football booth after one season to return to the Cowboys? When the season rolls around Witten will be 37 years old. Over his last two or three seasons Witten was down to pretty much a possession receiver. He didn't even average nine yards per catch in 2017. But if Witten has what he had then, he can still help Dak Prescott and the Cowboys's offense some. I feel confident the MNF chair won't be kept warm for Witten in his absence.

Not so Smart?

Think about this: To coach UT hoops, Shaka Smart gets paid more than double what Kelvin Sampson pulls down at UH. Seems beyond ridiculous now but the explanation is simple. Smart was a very hot ticket after his VCU run to the 2011 Final Four in Houston. Smart stayed at VCU another four years before deciding the Longhorn job and oodles of Longhorn cash were too much to pass up. He wouldn't have considered the UH gig for more than milliseconds. Sampson had done good work as an NBA assistant while serving out what was basically a five year banishment from the college game. He did not have big time programs lined up to hire him.

Funny how life goes sometimes. A general reflection of their current job performances was evidenced Wednesday. Kelvin's Coogs dismantled awful East Carolina while Shaka's Horns gagged away a 17 point lead in the last 8:40 of regulation and wound up losing in overtime at Baylor.

Shaka Smart seems like a genuinely good person, but his record with the Longhorns is 65-63. Over the last 365 days Sampson's Cougars are 31-3. As MLB.com Astros' beat writer and ardent UH fan Brian McTaggart noted to me this week, the three losses have come by one point to Cincinnati in last season's AAC Tournament championship game, the one point heartbreaker to Michigan in the NCAA Tournament, and this season's one blemish, the four point loss at Temple.

Saturday vs. Central Florida at the Fertitta Center isn't a total gimme, but there is no core reason to believe UH won't emerge at 28-1 for the season.

Buzzer Beaters:

1. So who bats cleanup for the Astros vs. right handed pitching, Michael Brantley or Carlos Correa? 2. Robert Kraft. I mean, seriously? 3. Best Italian restaurant desserts: Bronze-Italian Cream Cake Silver-Tiramisu Gold-Cassata Cake

Every-Thing Sports

Texans vs Chiefs: Good, bad & ugly

Getty Images

The Texans and Deshaun Watson won the battle of the two best quarterbacks from the 2017 draft over Pat Mahomes and the Chiefs 31-24. Here are my observations:

The Good

-Although both young quarterbacks had two turnovers each, it was Watson who outdueld Mahomes. He had a total of 322 yards and three touchdowns to Mahomes' 272 yards and three touchdowns. It was his ballsy playmaking ability on two fourth down conversions, as well as his timely rushing touchdowns in a big time road win that put him over.

-Rookie defensive lineman Charles Omenihu had a crucial strip sack of Mahomes just before halftime. Linebacker Benardrick McKinney recovered the fumble and the Texans scored on the next play to go up 23-17 with their 20th unanswered points of the first half. This was a huge momentum shifter.

-Tashaun Gipson caught the first Mahomes interception of the season in the second quarter. The Chiefs were driving again and in field goal range when Mahomes took a shot at the end zone thinking he had a free play because of a potential pass interference/defensive holding call. The refs remarkably overruled the original call and ruled it an interception. Shocker!

The Bad

-Whitney Mercilus jumped offsides and Mahomes took a deep shot knowing he had a free play. Tyreek Hill won the jumpball over Justin Reid and Phillip Gaines. Hill is listed at 5'10, but looked as if he was 6'7 when he leaped to catch the ball. Reid appeared to have the ball in his grasp, but came up empty.

-Carlos Hyde fumbled on the first play from scrtimmage where he appeared to have simply lost his grip on the ball. The no-contact fumble was recovered by the Chiefs and led to a field goal to put the score at 10-0 about five minutes into the game.

-Watson threw a pick into double coverage trying to go for DeAndre Hopkins in the end zone while thewy were in field goal range down 24-23. It was his second pick of the day. It also came after Hopkins dropped a potential touchdown catch uncharacteristically taking his eyes off the ball before securing the catch.

The Ugly

-Horrible missed call on an offensive pass interference on the Chiefs opening drive! Travis Kelce basically threw a pass block that opened up Damien Williams for a huge 52-yard gain. The Texans challenged the call and the refs upheld it. This was the epitome of ref C.Y.A.

-The two teams combined for 14 penalties for 114 yards in the first half. That was most in a half this season. In an offensive shootout, penalties can kill you. They ended the game with 21 combined penalties for 149 yards.

-Rookie offensive lineman Tytus Howard was carted off with a leg injury on the third play of the 3rd quarter. It looked to be somewhat serious as his leg was rolled on and bent in a weird way. Bradley Roby gingerly walked off the field mid way throught he 3rd quarter and left the Texans with four healthy corners. Few plays later, Chiefs went up 24-23 on another Hill touchdown catch.

The Texans put together a great gameplan and it went as well as one could expect against a juggernaut like the Chiefs. Bill O'Brien deserves come credit. He gambled on a couple key 4th down conversions because he trusted Watson to do the right thing. He also committed to the run to the tune of 192 yards on the ground, despite Hyde's early fumble. Hyde himself ended up with 116 yards rushing. If O'Brien and Watson keep this up, there could be big things on the horizon. Next week's matchup against the Colts in Indy will tell us who's the big dog in the AFC South. Can O'Brien and Watson make magic again?

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