The Pallilog

Rockets find themselves in a familiar position. Will the result be different this time?

Two years ago Saturday the Rockets suffered the most pathetic loss in franchise history. Down three games to two in the Western Conference semifinals, the Rockets had a home game to win and force a decisive seventh game. They were playing a San Antonio Spurs team without its best player (an injured Kawhi Leonard). The Spurs humiliated the Rockets 114-75. James Harden made two field goals the whole game (two for eleven from the field).

That was then this is now. The Rockets trail three games to two in the Western Conference semifinals, with a home game to win and force a decisive seventh game. The two-time defending NBA Champion Golden State Warriors are without their best player (an injured Kevin Durant). So now what?

Obviously the Warriors can win at Toyota Center. Friday night's game either extends or ends the Warriors' amazing NBA record streak of 20 consecutive playoff series in which they have won at least one road game. With Durant sidelined by his strained right calf, the Rockets are a bigger favorite in game six than either team was in the first five games. Add it all up, and if the Rockets don't force game seven it will be widely viewed as a colossal choke job.

That is too simplistic. Could they choke by, say, missing 27 consecutive three point shots? I guess. Just remember that before they had KD the Warriors won a title then added a 73-9 season and another Finals appearance. If Stephen Curry came out of his poor play rut in the fourth quarter of game five, he, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green can lead the way to victory though this squad is not as great as those teams of three and four years ago.

James Harden has an unfortunate track record of clunker games in closeout losses. As great as he's been for years, this Harden is a clearly better player. He needs to come through. No way in a competitive critical game should Harden go more than eight minutes of the fourth quarter without taking a shot as he did in game five. For an offensive machine who shoots step back threes by the truckload and can get to the paint for floaters and layups like few others, "making the right plays" does not entail going almost all of crunch time not taking a shot unless being double teamed upon every touch, which was not the case Wednesday.

Chris Paul's decline has been on display in this series. Can he summon up one big performance over the next two games? Sure would help the Rockets' chances. If he cannot and the Rockets get taken out, the three years 124 million left on Paul's contract is going to look flat out depressing.

My guess is the Rockets win game six handily, Warriors' coach Steve Kerr concedes earlier than he ordinarily would and saves what the champs have left for the winner takes all game seven at Oracle Arena Sunday. As for Game Seven, I have no good idea.

In the end you will or you won't, you do or you don't.

Astros are doing just fine

The Astros mash away, as they begin to pull away in the American League West. No division leader in Major League Baseball tops the Astros four-game cushion. They have hit 66 home runs in their first 38 games, a season pace toward a whopping 281. The Astros set the franchise record for homers in the first season of Enron Field in the peak of the steroid era. They hit 249 that year. Last season the Yankees set the MLB record with 267 homers. They did so with only Giancarlo Stanton hitting 30 or more (38). 12 Yankees hit at least 10. As the Astros cross the one quarter mark of the regular season this weekend they have five guys on pace to hit 35+: George Springer, Alex Bregman, Michael Brantley, Carlos Correa, and Jose Altuve.

This while Altuve endures the lengthiest slump of his career. Over his last 18 starts Altuve is just 10 for 67, bad for a .149 batting average and a .523 OPS. Reference point: in his 10 seasons with the Astros the offensively anemic Brad Ausmus never finished with an OPS below .593.

Springer last season endured a nightmarish stretch in which he went eight for 87. Bregman began his big league career one for 32. It's no hyperbole saying hitting a baseball is the hardest fundamental skill required in a major sport.

Buzzer Beaters

1. Albert Pujols is pretty much a washed up player. But one of the three greatest first basemen of all-time getting his 2000th RBI Thursday is still quite an achievement. 2. The NHL seventh games this week were beyond fantastic. If the Stanley Cup Final goes seven, pledge to watch! 3. Greatest 1Bs of all-time: Bronze-Pujols Silver-Jimmie Foxx (though Pujols over Foxx is fine) Gold-Lou Gehrig

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The Houston Astros managed to win the AL West once again, and while things got a little nerve wracking toward the end of the season, when it mattered most, the 'Stros took care of business.

It certainly didn't hurt to get a little help from the Mariners, beating the Rangers 1-0 on Sunday, paving the way for the Astros to secure the division. Rangers fans and members of their broadcast team were none too pleased with the Diamondbacks resting some of their starters on Sunday.

But let's be real, with the division on the line, the Rangers couldn't even manage to score a single run on Sunday against Seattle. That's why they're playing in the Wild Card series, not because of how Arizona approached Sunday's game.

So what did we learn during these must-win games over the last week? A lot was made of GM Dana Brown's comments on the team's flagship station. Brown was hoping manager Dusty Baker would put the best offensive lineup on the field. Yainer Diaz did not start a single game of the Diamondbacks series. But Chas McCormick played every game of the Mariners and Diamondbacks series, except for the finale against Seattle, after being hit in the back with a fastball the night before.

Michael Brantley played in two of three against Arizona, so he appears to be an option Dusty will turn to moving forward. And with the Astros only scoring 1 and 2 runs in two of the three wins against the D-Backs, the Astros need every bit of offense they can get.

Plus, we discuss how getting extra rest for Michael Brantley, Jose Abreu, and the bullpen could pay huge dividends for the club. And don't look now, but Jose Abreu is getting hot at just the right time!

Be sure to watch the video above for the full discussion.

And be sure to watch Stone Cold 'Stros (an Astros podcast) every Monday on SportMapHouston's YouTube channel.

Listen to ESPN 97.5 and 92.5 FM for Houston's best sports talk.

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