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

Astros Red Sox rematch, Verlander on a roll and more

Harden is first team All-NBA, but is there a problem with Paul?

Composite photo by Brandon Strange

James Harden was named first team All-NBA Thursday. The vote for him was unanimous as it was for Milwaukee's Giannis Antetokounmpo, who will likely wrest the NBA MVP Award from Harden. It's Harden's fifth first team selection. Hakeem Olajuwon was named first team six times. LeBron James is the all-time leader with 12 first team selections, Karl Malone and Kobe Bryant each made it 11.

Sounds as though Chris Paul may not have sent Harden congratulatory flowers or candy. It seemed weak of the Rockets to not hold customary exit interviews and media availability soon after their season ended. Some light may have been shed on that if the report is accurate that Paul had done some chafing over the extent of Harden's ball dominance (maybe more so after Harden's four fourth quarter turnovers in the game six capitulation vs. the Warriors?) and stand around nature of Harden iso-ball. That style coupled with the relentless heaving of three point shots generally served the Rockets well, but has its flaws. For years Paul was a brilliant and low turnover orchestrator of offense so some frustration for him is understandable. But with that, Paul needs to understand that he's not the player he used to be. It's the Rockets' problem that over the next three seasons they'll be paying Paul as if he's better than ever.

On the Astros

The Astros are a loaded team but certainly not perfect. General Manager Jeff Luhnow has no need to act now but things may be moving in the direction of him looking hard for a starting pitcher addition between now and July 31. Collin McHugh failed and is now injured. Josh James has been wild and shaky, Corbin Martin the same two starts in a row. Framber Valdez isn't very highly regarded, and Forrest Whitley has been awful in four straight starts at AAA. Any one of those guys could wind up stabilizing the fifth spot in the rotation. Or maybe it's an acquisition like the Blue Jays' Marcus Stroman.

After a disappointing series split with the White Sox the Astros spend a second consecutive weekend with the Boston Red Sox. Last weekend they took two of three at Fenway Park, without Justin Verlander pitching. If Tal's Hill still existed at Minute Maid Park, Tuesday night against the White Sox Verlander might have pitched his third career no-hitter. Verlander goes Sunday in pursuit of his ninth win already this season. He's 8-1 with a sparkling 2.24 earned run average. Verlander's career season to date is 2011 when as a Detroit Tiger he won 24 games (with just five losses) and posted a 2.40 ERA enroute to winning both the American League Cy Young and Most Valuable Player awards. The Yankees Domingo German has come out of nowhere to be 9-1 with a sub-three ERA, but Verlander is well out front to win his second "Cy." That would go with his three second place finishes and one third place finish.

Verlander is now basically a surefire Hall of Famer on top of his game at age 36. Among the seven pitchers to win a "Cy" after turning 36, knuckleballer R.A. Dickey is the "Wait. What is he is doing with these other names?" guy. The others are all 300 game winners, and except for Roger Clemens, all Hall of Famers. The Rocket won three Cy Young awards after turning 36, the last as an Astro when he was 43. Randy Johnson won four in a row STARTing when he was 36. The other golden relative oldies: Warren Spahn, Steve Carlton, Gaylord Perry, and Early Wynn.

Home run derby

The juiced baseballs are flying out of big league ballparks at a record rate this season. The Astros have certainly done their part, hitting 90 home runs in their 51 games. Their season homer pace is at 285. The 2017 World Series winning offensive juggernaut hit 238. The Yankees set the team season record last year with 267. The surprising Minnesota Twins belted eight homers Thursday in improving the best record in MLB to 33-16. The Twins have 98 dingers in 49 games. That's exactly two per game on average, meaning a season pace toward 324. The record for most homers allowed in a season is 258, by the Reds three years ago.The Orioles' atrocious pitching staff has already given up 107 home runs. That's on pace to give up 339. 339!

Boston common

The Stanley Cup Final starts Monday night with Boston against St. Louis. The Red Sox won the most recent World Series. The Patriots won the most recent Super Bowl. Go Blues! Um, that's St. Louis. Thank goodness the Celtics flamed out in the second round of the NBA playoffs.

Buzzer beaters

1. Only a boob wouldn't have voted Harden first team All-NBA. 2.The two who voted Harden first All-Defensive team are no Rocket scientists. 3. Greatest scientists not named Einstein: Bronze-Pasteur Silver-Galileo Gold-Newton

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