Rockets keep acing every test, roll through another unbeaten week

James Harden and the Rockets continue to roll. Kevin C. Cox

A week after watching the longest winning streak of the season come to an end, the Rockets showed zero cause for concern as they racked up another four wins against four playoff contenders on their way to closing out one of the best seasons in franchise history. Houston maintains the best record in the NBA, and have since increased their grasp on the number one seed in the western conference to three games. The Rockets also clinched the Southwest Division and have already surpassed last season’s win total.

Game 67: Rockets at San Antonio Spurs (W, 109-93)

The Rockets took on the Spurs Monday for the third time this season. The previous three matchups had all resulted in blowout Rocket victories, so the odds weren’t exactly in the Spurs favor to begin with. When it was announced prior to tip-off that San Antonio would be taking the court without Lamarcus Aldridge and Manu Ginobili, their chances looked even more bleak. A 19-4 run out of the gate by the Rockets confirmed that theory.

After the Spurs first score, the Rockets never trailed in the game. A comfortable lead ballooned even further after a third quarter run, and the Rockets left San Antonio with an easy victory. James Harden shook off a slow start to lead the team with 28 points. Chris Paul added 18 points as well as 9 assists.

Game 68: Rockets vs Los Angeles Clippers (W, 101-96)

If you were expecting past experience to predict future performance, you would have been very surprised at the game. The Rockets summarily dismantled the Clippers in their last matchup, and Rockets fans were ready to watch a repeat performance on their home court Thursday.

They did not get what they wanted.

What they did get was a highly competitive, very chippy game that wasn’t decided until the very last minute. A back and forth first half gave way to the first sustained lead in the third by the Clippers. Halfway through, though, the Rockets would storm back to keep the game close, and in the end James Harden would seal the victory with a step back jump shot over Austin Rivers late in the fourth. Harden would finish with 24 points. Eric Gordon went 7-of-9 from three, finishing with 23 points.

Game 69: Rockets at New Orleans Pelicans (W, 107-101)

In their third matchup this season, the Rockets headed to The Big Easy for a rubber game against a Pelicans team that has proven to be a difficult out for Houston this season. Sunday’s game was no different.

In what has seemed to be a noticeable pattern this season, the Rockets started slow, but were propelled to a victory behind a second half offensive explosion. Leading 60-54 at the half, Houston stormed out of the gates in the third, pushing their lead to as high as 20 points. The Pelicans would chip away at the lead, but the advantage the Rockets had already established proved to be too much. Harden led the Rockets with 32 points and 11 rebounds, while Chris Paul added 21.

Game 70: Rockets at Minnesota Timberwolves (W, 129-120)

The second game of back-to-backs are always a cause for concern, but this season the Rockets have seemed to be unphased by much of anything. Sunday night was more of the same as Houston took control early and rode yet another massive lead into a victory. Minnesota would stage a late game comeback, but would ultimately fail. Houston led by as much as 25 before the rally, and with the game as close as five in the closing minutes the Rockets executed clutch shots to secure the win, which surpassed last season’s win total. Harden lead once again with 34 points and 12 assists. Chris Paul followed with 18 points, 8 rebounds and 9 assists. Clint Capela added 16 points, 12 rebounds and 3 blocks.

Looking ahead

The Rockets are back in action this Tuesday against a red-hot Portland team, followed by a home matchup Thursday against the Detroit Pistons. The end of the week will see Houston taking on New Orleans at home for the last time this season on Saturday, followed by a Sunday home game against the Atlanta Hawks.

Portland is currently riding a 13-game win streak, but have yet to take either of the two matchups against Houston this season. More than likely this matchup will be decided in the paint, and while the Rockets have won inside during the first two matchups, they also haven't played a Trail Blazers team with Myers Leonard and Jusuf Nurkic at full strength.

Thursday’s game against Detroit will be the second and final matchup between the two teams. Detroit took the first game of the regular season series even with star center Andre Drummond sidelined with injury. Since then, the Pistons traded for Clippers big man Blake Griffin. However they’ve gone 1-4 in their last five games.

New Orleans is currently scraping and clawing for a playoff spot in the log-jam at the bottom of the western conference, and every matchup this season with the Rockets has been a dogfight. An increased sense of urgency as the season draws to a close could be problematic for Houston next Saturday night.

Atlanta travels to Houston Sunday night to close out the season series, and little evidence exists that this will be a competitive contest. Expect the Rockets to cruise through this matchup.

While another undefeated week is entirely possible, it is not forecast with as much confidence as last week. Portland will be this week’s toughest test, followed by New Orleans, Detroit, and Atlanta. At the absolute worst, I see a 2-2 week.

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Jose Altuve is on a roll. Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images.

And then there were six. Games left in the Astros’ regular season. Three vs. Tampa Bay then three vs. Philadelphia, all at Minute Maid Park. The first three are important for the Rays as they jockey for Wild Card positioning with the Blue Jays and Mariners. The second three games decide playoffs or no playoffs for the Phillies as they try to stave off the Brewers. The Astros have nothing to play for with regard to the standings but it’s still a fun finish to another fabulous season. 102-54! Matching or topping the franchise record of 107 regular season wins would be grand, but it’s not a goal they’re going to push the limits to achieve. There are a couple individual pursuits of note this final week. We’ll hit those then get to truly important stuff to be settled on before the Astros start their postseason October 11.

Crunching the numbers

Three weeks ago I wrote that Jose Altuve needed a tremendous finishing kick to get there, but that his first .300 batting average season since 2018 was within striking distance. He promptly went one for eight over his next two games, lengthening the odds against him. In 15 games since Altuve has sizzled, banging out 21 hits in 54 at bats for a .389 average. So with six games to go he’s at .297. If Altuve gets 20 more official at bats he needs eight hits.

Yordan Alvarez’s assorted maladies sure cause some indigestion. The knee history, the hands, and now an ankle roll. Yordan is still four RBI short of joining Kyle Tucker with 100+. They’d be the Astros first 100+ tandem since…just three years ago when Alex Bregman (112) and Yuli Gurriel (104) did it.

Setting the playoff rotation

The playoff schedule is stupid in spots, dictated by television. The Astros against To Be Determined in their best-of-five American League Division Series will have game one Tuesday October 11, then a day off before game two Thursday, then a day off before game three Saturday (same is true for Yankees vs. To Be Determined). That’s ridiculous, and gives longtime Astros fans Kevin Brown nightmares (see 1998 NLDS). Unless there’s a three game sweep, game four would be Sunday. Should the series go to a decisive fifth game, there is no off day between games four and five. This impacts starting pitcher planning. Obviously the Astros go Justin Verlander in game one and Framber Valdez in game two. Almost certainly Lance McCullers gets the ball in game three. Then (unless the series is a sweep) there is a decision to be made. First, with the two off days Verlander would be available on four days rest. Up 2-1 last year, after a rainout the Astros brought back McCullers on a shorter four days rest (game one was a night game, game four a day game) and Lance blew out his arm again. If up two games to one, pitching Verlander on “normal” four days rest to go for the kill would take him out of the American League Championship Series until game three, and that would be his only starting availability in the ALCS unless you’d foolishly bring him back on three days rest if there was a game seven. So, if up 2-1 the smarter play is to start Cristian Javier in game four which has Verlander ready to go in a do-or-die game five or if the Astros advance in four, game one of the American League Championship Series. If down 2-1 and you pitch Verlander, if there’s a game five it’s the guy you passed over in game four, or Framber on three days rest.

Yes, Javier in game four, over Jose Urquidy and Luis Garcia because quite simply, Javier is better. Unless Verlander or Valdez gets knocked out early, committing Javier to a bullpen role where he’d throw two or three innings vs. the six or so you’d expect out of him as a starter doesn’t make sense, definitely not with the first round schedule. Presumably Urquidy or Garcia will be on the roster for long reliever duty (carrying both would be poor roster management). The Astros have the best bullpen in the Major Leagues. Getting cute and using Javier over Ryne Stanek, Rafael Montero, or Ryan Pressly would be silly. Over Hector Neris or Bryan Abreu? Maybe. When Javier is vulnerable it’s walks and home runs that typically get him, so bringing him in in a tight seventh or eighth inning spot would be a dubious choice given the high caliber alternatives.

As for the roster, teams can change it round by round. Carrying 13 pitchers in a best-of-five with two scheduled off days is impractical. The Astros should carry Yainer Diaz or Korey Lee as a third catcher and David Hensley as an extra utility option. 12 pitchers: Verlander, Valdez, McCullers, Javier, Urquidy OR Garcia, Pressly, Montero, Stanek, Neris, Abreu, Will Smith, Hunter Brown OR Phil Maton.

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