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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Houston's losing streak extended to five games

With key Astros missing, Detroit completes the series sweep

An overall bad day for the Astros on Wednesday. Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

On Wednesday afternoon, the Astros received a big blow to their chances in the series finale against Detroit and potentially longer. Five players: Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman, Yordan Alvarez, Martin Maldonado, and Robel Garcia would all be moved to the IL due to health and safety protocols, leaving them scrambling to get a whole team together for the game against the Tigers.

The Astros would not be able to overcome both the loss of players and the onslaught of another strong start by Detroit in Wednesday's game which put them too far out front for Houston to come back from to avoid a series sweep.

Final Score: Tigers 6, Astros 4

Astros' Record: 6-6, third in the AL West

Winning Pitcher: Michael Fulmer (1-0)

Losing Pitcher: Lance McCullers Jr. (1-1)

Tigers knock out another starter early

Detroit continued their success of making Houston's starter work hard in early innings, getting after Lance McCullers Jr., and giving him an early exit. After a lengthy fist, they broke through in the second getting two hits, a walk, a hit batter, and an RBI groundout to put up three runs on 34 pitches.

He would have a quicker 1-2-3 third, but after giving up a single, a walk, and hitting another batter to load the bases and reach 87 pitches, he would be removed in favor of Joe Smith. Smith would allow all three of the inherited runners to score, adding those runs to McCullers Jr.'s final line: 3.2 IP, 4 H, 6 R, 6 ER, 3 BB, 3 K, 87 P.

Astros try to claw back into it

After Smith would go on to load the bases again in the inning, still with two outs, Houston made another pitching change to bring in Brandon Bielak to get the third out and stop the bleeding at 6-0. The Astros would get on the board in the fifth, getting a runner on base to set up a two-run homer by Jason Castro to cut the lead to 6-2.

Bielak remained in the game to try and eat up as many innings as possible. While he continued to hold the Tigers to their six runs through the six innings, the Astros clawed back into the game. In the bottom of the sixth, Houston put their first two batters on base with a walk and single before an RBI-single by Yuli Gurriel to make it 6-3. They would threaten for more but be held there for the time being.

Astros can't cash in, Tigers complete sweep

Ryne Stanek was Houston's next reliever in the top of the seventh, getting a 1-2-3 frame to keep it a three-run game, as did Brooks Raley in the eighth. In the home part of the inning, the Astros put their first two runners on base on an error and a walk, then loaded them with a one-out single by Carlos Correa. They'd waste their chance to make something happen, though, with an inning-ending double-play.

Ryan Pressly, who had no save opportunities in recent games, entered to get some work in the top of the ninth. He worked around a leadoff double for a scoreless inning, sending the 6-3 game to the bottom of the ninth. The Astros had yet another chance to make something happen, loading the bases with no outs to bring the go-ahead run to the plate. After two outs, Yuli Gurriel would bring one run in with a walk, but that's as close as they'd come, extending their losing streak to five games and getting swept by the Tigers.

Up Next: Houston will get a much-needed day off tomorrow to try and leave this poor homestand behind them. They'll pick things up in Seattle on Friday, with first pitch of the opener of three games at 9:10 PM Central. The expected pitching matchup is Jose Urquidy (0-1, 5.23 ERA) for the Astros and Yusei Kikuchi (0-0, 3.75 ERA) for the Mariners.

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