ROCKETS REPORT

Rockets just keep rolling toward best record in the league

James Harden and Chris Paul are riding the wave to the best record in basketball. Houston Rockets/Facebook

I’ve tried to stay grounded watching this Rockets squad all season.

I’ve continuously attempted to provide objective weekly win predictions, yet as the season has progressed this team has turned more and more into some video game version of a basketball team that no one has figured out the answer to. Somewhere along the line James Harden became a near shoe-in for the league MVP award. Somewhere along the line the entire team adopted bought in to Head Coach Mike D’Antoni’s so wholeheartedly that even when Houston’s superstars are out, opposing teams are crushed and their fans are left asking “Who scored on us?”

The Rockets survived a Tuesday night thriller versus Portland followed by a Thursday night mud fight against the Pistons, before cruising to victories Saturday night and Sunday night. Sunday night’s victory was their ninth straight and since last week Houston has increased its Western Conference lead on the Golden State Warriors (YET AGAIN) to 5.5 games. The Rockets maintain the best record in the league, and Saturday night they set a franchise record for most wins in a single season ever. That includes both championship seasons.

If you aren’t already, it is officially time to get excited for the playoffs. This team is special.

Game 71: Rockets at Portland Trail Blazers (W, 115-111)

Tuesday's matchup pitted the Rockets against a white-hot Trail Blazers team riding a 13-game win streak, and the result was far from disappointing. In one of what has become a rare opportunity for another NBA team to prove itself an actual threat, the No. 3-seeded Portland Trail Blazers unloaded everything they had against Rockets, maintaining a close game throughout.

The problem, however, is that James Harden was also interested in winning this matchup.

Harden poured in 42 points on the way to a very tightly contested victory against the third best team in the western conference, including two absolutely vicious step back daggers late in the fourth to seal it. Chris Paul added 22 points, but pulled up injured in the very last few seconds of the game with a tweaked hamstring

Game 72: Rockets vs Detroit Pistons (W (OT), 100-96)

Gross.

Houston was without Chris Paul in its attempt to close out the season series versus Detroit with a win, and thanks to an abysmal shooting night from behind the arc it took an extra quarter of basketball to deliver. The Rockets went 12-51 from beyond the arc, and looked sloppy throughout. Yet, in one of their sloppiest games, they were still never out of it thanks in part to an even worse night from three-point land from the Pistons. Detroit struggled at a 6-38 clip from three, and despite out rebounding the Rockets 72-60, Harden once again staged some late game heroics (this time defensively) to force an overtime that would inevitably pave the way to a Rockets victory. Eric Gordon would lead the team with 22 points, while Harden followed with 21 thanks largely in part to some late game fouling. The win tied Houston for the most franchise wins in a single season ever.

Game 73: Houston vs New Orleans Pelicans (W, 114-91)

The Rockets/Pelicans series prior to Saturday night had been a season’s worth of fantastic, closely contested matchups that were decided by an average of 5 points or less. Saturday night, however, the Rockets showed no interest in another such game. A 29-16 first, followed by a 35-21 second quarter fueled a statement victory, with Harden scoring 27 points in three quarters. Eric Gordon followed with 19 points, on 4-9 from three-point range. Clint Capela--with his best Anthony Davis impression--added 18 points, 16 rebounds, and 6 blocks. The win set a new franchise record for wins in a single season.

Game 74: Houston vs Atlanta Hawks (W, 118-99)

For a third straight night Chris Paul sat due to injury as the Rockets closed out the week against an unimposing Atlanta Hawks team. It was a contest that was put away very early by the home team, thanks in part to contributions from the bench while Paul continued to nurse his hamstring. Gerald Green led the team with 25 points in a matchup that saw Houston’s lead as high as 26 at one point. Gordon followed with 22 points, while Harden added an 18 point, 10 rebound, and 15 assist triple-double; because of course he did. The seemingly effortless victory was Houston’s ninth in a row and their 60th win on the season.

Looking ahead

The Rockets return to the court with home games Tuesday and Friday against the Chicago Bulls and the Phoenix Suns respectively before a Sunday away game against the San Antonio Spurs ends the week.

This is probably one of the easiest weeks Houston has had in months as Chicago has dropped the past five in a row, and Phoenix the past eleven. San Antonio, while typically a perennial contender has proven to be completely outmatched against Houston all season, and I don’t see anything changing this week. I normally don’t expect a team to win all of its matchups in a week, but if there was a week to bank on it, this would be the one.

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Yuli Gurriel had a monster night at the plate Friday. Photo by Elsa/Getty Images.

Although they lost the series 2-1, the Astros ended their road trip with a nice win over the Yankees to head home on a positive note. On Friday, they welcomed in the Toronto Blue Jays and former teammate George Springer, currently on the IL, to start a three-game series and long homestand. They had an excellent night at the plate, along with a strong start from Jose Urquidy, cruising past the Blue Jays to take the opener.

Final Score: Astros 10, Blue Jays 4

Astros' Record: 17-15, third in the AL West

Winning Pitcher: Jose Urquidy (3-2)

Losing Pitcher: Ross Stripling (0-2)

Jays strike first, then Houston responds and never looks back

It first appeared that Urquidy may be in for a long night, giving up two solo home runs early in Friday's game, one to Bo Bichette in the top of the first with one out to put Toronto up 1-0, then another to Danny Jansen in the top of the third. However, Urquidy would lock-in, and his offense would back him up strongly.

Houston ended up sending nine batters to the plate in the bottom of the second, getting two runs on a homer by Carlos Correa, then later loading the bases to set up an RBI walk by Alex Bregman. In the bottom of the fifth, with a one-run lead at 3-2, Yuli Gurriel expanded the lead to three runs on a two-run shot.

Gurriel went on to have a fantastic night, going 4-for-4 at the plate with 4 RBI. His third of those came in the bottom of the seventh, extending the lead again with an RBI single to make it 6-2. Kyle Tucker made it a five-run game that same inning with an RBI double, then more insurance came in the bottom of the eighth. They reached double-digits that inning, with Alex Bregman, Yordan Alvarez, and Yuli Gurriel, his fourth of the night, all getting an RBI to make it 10-2.

Urquidy finishes seven, then Emanuel finishes it off

Those gave Urquidy plenty of support, though he would bounce back after the two early homers and have a nice night on the mound. He allowed just two other hits, working around both, en route to a seven-inning two-run performance to earn him the win. His final line: 7.0 IP, 4 H, 2 ER, 1 BB, 2 K, 2 HR, 84 P.

He likely could have gone longer, but Dusty Baker turned the ball over to Kent Emanuel to wrap things up with the significant lead. He did so, despite allowing a two-run home run to former-Astro Teoscor Hernandez in the top of the ninth to make the score 10-4. The win kept the Astros above .500 and two games back of the A's, who sit atop the AL West standings.

Up Next: The middle game of this series will be a 6:10 PM start Saturday night. The pitching matchup will be Steven Matz (4-2, 4.78 ERA) for Toronto and the electric Cristian Javier (3-0, 1.75 ERA) for Houston.

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