The Pallilog

Rockets' fall to fourth disappointing, but matchup with Jazz favors them

Composite photo by Jack Brame

Quite a two night stretch that saw the Rockets blow the second seed in the Western Conference and fall to fourth. Second time this season the Rockets wasted a huge lead against the Thunder. This time up 14 in the fourth quarter wasn't enough. It seemed as if Wednesday night Denver would grant the Rockets a reprieve, then the Nuggets rallied from 11 points down with under three and a half minutes to play to pull a game out of their posteriors vs. Minnesota to clinch the two seed. That as Portland wound up rallying from 28 points down to win a game it blatantly had set itself up to lose. As a result, with the Trail Blazers' season series win over the Rockets giving them the tiebreaker, the Rockets drop to a fourth seed first round matchup pairing with fifth seed Utah.

On the radio show Thursday Jeff Van Gundy said the Jazz is by far the toughest first round opponent the Rockets could have drawn. Not sure I agree with that relative to the Thunder, but Utah definitely looms as more problematic than seventh seeded San Antonio likely would have been if the Rockets had secured the two seed. Before losing a meaningless season finale the Jazz won 13 out of 15 games. However, only two of the wins came over playoff teams.

Utah's offense is middling, led by second year guard Donovan Mitchell. In the second round last spring the Rockets rendered then rookie Mitchell very inefficient in dusting the Jazz four games to one in the second round. The Jazz defense is elite, anchored by center Rudy Gobert, the best defensive big man in the game. If the Rockets get Gobert in foul trouble, the Jazz should be muted pretty easily. His presence in the paint and ability to recover in pick and roll situations is the biggest reason Utah can aggressively contest and close out on the perimeter and leads to the most fascinating statistical contrast in this series: Jazz opponents took the fewest three point shots in the league. You well know about the Rockets' again record-shattering bombs away mode.

Early test 

There is no such thing as a baseball showdown series in mid-April, but the Seattle Mariners try to make a modest statement as they play host to the Astros for three games at newly renamed T-Mobile Park this weekend. The M's 13-2 start is the biggest early season positive surprise in Major League Baseball. In the last 33 seasons Seattle is just the third team to win 13 of its first 15 games. The Mariner offense has been crushing it, scoring at least five runs in all but one game thus far. The Mariners have blasted 36 home runs already, becoming the first MLB team ever to hit at least one homer in all of its first 15 games.

The Astros' stumbling 2-5 season opening road trip already seems a distant memory. After a stink bomb of an offense on that trip, the obviously potent attack has roared to life, leading to the Astros sweeping a multi-series home stand for the first time since the end of the 2004 season when they won six straight games to snare a National League Wild Card spot. Jose Altuve looks great, Carlos Correa looks great. That's because given good health, they're great! Michael Brantley is performing right about as one would expect, George Springer similarly. Alex Bregman is Alex Bregman (don't push it on that minorly tweaked hamstring Alex). This lineup should score truckloads of runs.

It's dueling six game winning streaks and dueling southpaw Wades in the Friday night series opener, with Wade Miley pitching for the Astros, Wade LeBlanc for the Mariners. Then we'll see how much slugging the Mariners can muster Saturday and Sunday when faced with Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole. The Mariners last played a postseason game in 2001. That's the longest drought in the big four North American leagues.

Final thoughts


What a great Final Four it was in Minneapolis. Virginia capping its bounce back from ultimate humiliation of last year being the first ever number one seed to lose to a 16, to ultimate jubilation of topping Texas Tech in overtime to win the National Championship. If a Red Raider, given the choice would you take: A. having won the title but head coach Chris Beard then opting for a job elsewhere, or B. runner-up with Beard staying in Lubbock? I'd think A would win a secret ballot vote tally. The reality of B is quite good.

Buzzer beaters

1. More likely: Rockets fall to the Jazz in round 1 or the Rockets dethrone the Warriors in round 2? 2. Less than two weeks to an extra critical NFL Draft for the Texans 3. Best present NBA nicknames: Bronze-Kevin Durant "The Slim Reaper" (though supposedly KD doesn't like it) Silver-Rudy Gobert "The French Rejection" Gold-Rudy Gobert "The Stifle Tower."

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A WEEKLY REVIEW OF CRENNEL'S COACHING

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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