ROCKETS REPORT

Rockets get off to slow start with 1-2 opening week

Rockets get off to slow start with 1-2 opening week
James Harden and the Rockets struggled in the opening week. Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

The Rockets kicked off their season on Wednesday with an eye-opening thud against a formidable New Orleans team, before a weekend back-to-back series against both of the the Los Angeles squads. Houston was able to squeeze a hard fought victory out of the Lakers, but lost starting point guard Chris Paul to a two game suspension for fighting. Following Saturday’s contest/brawl, the understaffed Rockets would go on to drop a close one to the Clippers. After three games the Rockets are 1-2 and last in the Southwest Division.

Game One: Rockets vs New Orleans Pelicans (L, 112-131)

Fans looking for an easy win to shrug off last year’s crushing playoff exit were treated to a rude awakening courtesy of the basketball stylings of Anthony Davis and Nikola Mirotic. Scoring 32 and 30 respectively, the duo fueled an early game push that the Rockets were never able to catch up to. In a largely uncompetitive game Eric Gordon led Houston in scoring with 21 points, while Harden flirted with a triple-double (18 points, 10 assists, 9 rebounds). P.J. Tucker and Chris Paul each added 19 points.

Game Two: Rockets at Los Angeles Lakers (W, 124-115)

There are very few things outside of a championship that are more satisfying that playing spoiler. A year removed from defeating the Golden State Warriors on their ring ceremony night, the Rockets were back at again, this time ruining LeBron James’ highly anticipated home opener with his newest team. James pushed through a slow start to finish with 24 points, while Harden torched the Lakers to the tune of 36 points. If the wildly close game throughout wasn’t entertaining enough, fans were treated to an in-game brawl instigated by Lakers forward Brandon Ingram. The tension boiled over when Lakers guard Rajon Rondo spit in Chris Paul’s face. Paul responded in kind with a less-than-friendly face push, which incite a flurry of Rondo punches. Ingram returned to fray to add a few cheap shots before everyone was separated. Houston would pull away at the end, but it would come at a cost. Paul would ultimately be suspended 2 games, while Rondo and Ingram received 3 and 4 game suspensions respectively.

Game Three: Rockets at Los Angeles Clippers (L, 112-115)

Missing their star point guard Paul due to suspension, the Rockets took to the Staples Center late Sunday evening in a face off against a Clippers team that was seemingly gutted throughout the trade deadline and off-season. What was expected to be an easy win turned into a struggle throughout, and a 39-point third quarter surge and last minute  bench contributions would put the Houston away, dropping them to 1-2 on the season. Harden paced the team with 31 points and 14 assists, while Clint Capela and Gordon added 23 and 21 points each.

Observations

Carmelo Anthony has been the subject of speculation since he arrived in Houston, and through three games he’s not exactly passing the eye test. While averaging over 27 minutes per game, Anthony is only averaging 8.3 points per game, to go with 0.7 assists and 6.7 rebounds. Three games certainly isn’t enough to draw any real conclusions, but it certainly is a little eyebrow raising. Hopefully we get more of a Michael Beasley effort this season and not a Joe Johnson.

Looking Ahead

The Rockets have a light two-game schedule to look forward to next week as they square off against the Utah Jazz on Wednesday and a home rematch against the Clippers Friday. Houston will call on the services of their bench against the Jazz to help fill the void left by Paul’s suspension. The Jazz, now healthy, are one of the tougher teams in the Western Conference, so don’t expect an easy win. The Rockets will return to full strength against the Clippers this friday, and should have no issue dispatching the patchwork squad. I expect a 1-1 week.

 

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Astros on the hunt. Composite Getty Image.

With the Astros' surge from 10 games out of first place to within two games of Seattle, catching and going past the Mariners has naturally become the top objective. It's no given to happen but it's right there. In the final series ahead of the All-Star break, while the Mariners are in the midst of four games with the lowly Angels, the last two World Series champions renew (un)pleasantries at Minute Maid Park.

The Astros enter the weekend five games ahead of the Rangers. They lead the season series with the reigning champs four wins to three. While the Astros can't quite finish off the Arlingtonians by sweeping them in this three game set, shoving them eight games back (even further back of Seattle and the current Wild Card teams) and clinching the tiebreaker would seem close to a death blow. Taking two out of three would be fine for the Astros. If the Rangers win the series, they are clearly still in the American League West and Wild Card races coming out of the All-Star break.

Last year the Rangers had the best offense in the AL. So far in 2024 they rank a mediocre eighth in runs per game. Nathaniel Lowe is the lone Ranger (get it?!?) regular playing as well as he did last season. Corey Seager has been fine but not at the MVP runner-up level of last year. Marcus Semien is notably down, as is 2023 ALCS Astros-obliterater Adolis Garcia. Stud 2023 rookie Josh Jung has been out with a broken wrist since ex-Astro Phil Maton hit him with a pitch in the fourth game of this season, though fill-in third baseman Josh Smith has been the Rangers' best player. 21-year-old late season phenom Evan Carter largely stunk the first two months this season and has been out since late May with a back injury. Repeating is hard, never harder than it is now. Hence no Major League Baseball has done it since the Yankees won three straight World Series 1998-2000.

Chasing down the Division at a crazy clip

From the abyss of their 7-19 start, the Astros sweep over the Marlins clinched a winning record at the break with them at 49-44. Heading into the Texas matchup the Astros have won at a .627 clip since they were 7-19. A full season of .627 ball wins 101 games. If the Astros win at a .627 rate the rest of the way they'll finish with 92 wins, almost certainly enough to secure a postseason slot and likely enough to win the West. Expecting .627 the rest of the way is ambitious.

With it fairly clear that Lance McCullers is highly unlikely to contribute anything after his latest recovery setback, and Luis Garcia a major question mark, what Justin Verlander has left in 2024 grows more important. With the way the Astros often dissemble or poorly forecast when discussing injuries, for all we know Verlander could be cooked. Inside three weeks to the trade deadline, General Manager Dana Brown can't be thinking a back end of the rotation comprised of Spencer Arrighetti and Jake Bloss should be good enough. The Astros have 66 games to play after the All-Star break, including separate stretches with games on 18 and 16 consecutive days.

All-Star MIAs

Viewership for Tuesday's All-Star game at Globe Life Field in Arlington will be pretty, pretty, pretty low in Houston. One, All-Star Game ratings are pitiful every year compared to where they used to be. Two, the Astros could be down to zero representatives at Tuesday's showcase. Kyle Tucker was rightfully named a reserve but had no shot at playing as he continues the loooong recovery from a bone bruise (or worse) suffered June 3. Being named an All-Star for a ninth time was enough for Jose Altuve. He opts out of spending unnecessary time in Texas Rangers territory citing a sore wrist. This despite Altuve playing four games in a row since sitting out the day after he was plunked and highly likely to play in all three games versus the Rangers this weekend. Yordan Alvarez exiting Wednesday's rout of the Marlins with hip discomfort and then missing Thursday's game seem clear reasons for him to skip, though he has indicated thus far he intends to take part. Yordan is the most essential lineup component to the Astros' hopes of making an eighth straight playoff appearance.

Ronel Blanco should have made the American League squad on performance, but pretty obviously his 10 game illegal substance use suspension was held against him. As it works out, Blanco will pitch Sunday in the last game before the break which would render him unavailable for the All-Star Game anyway. Blanco is eligible to pitch, but given the career high-shattering innings workload Blanco is headed for, no way the Astros want him on the mound Tuesday. Just last year the Astros kept Framber Valdez from pitching in the game.

While waiting, and waiting, and waiting on Tucker's return, the Astros have also been waiting on Chas McCormick to get back to something even faintly resembling the hitter he was last year. McCormick routinely looks lost at the plate. He has four hits (all singles) in his last 32 at bats with his season OPS pitiful at .572. During the break the Astros should seriously weigh sending McCormick to AAA Sugar Land and giving Pedro Leon a try in a job share with Joey Loperfido.

*Catch our weekly Stone Cold ‘Stros podcast. Brandon Strange, Josh Jordan, and I discuss varied Astros topics. The first post for the week generally goes up Monday afternoon (second part released Tuesday) via The SportsMap HOU YouTube channel or listen to episodes in their entirety at Apple, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.

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