Rockets 109, Nuggets 99

Rockets keep rolling and defeat Nuggets

Next up, the Rockets face the Warriors on Thursday night. Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

Two days removed from a convincing win at home against the Pacers--and zero days removed from the Carmelo Anthony-induced national media spotlight--the Houston Rockets squared off against the reeling but formidable Denver Nuggets. With the Warriors looming later in the week, the 5-7 Rockets were in no position to lose any ground in the standings. What resulted was a resounding 109-99 victory that featured a Rockets team that, for the second game in a row, looked just as lethal as they were last season.

In a matchup that showcased fairly converse team compositions, the Nuggets and Rockets each played to their strengths throughout. Houston operated from the arc using kick outs and lob passes from pick and roll drives, while Denver attacked the paint with their star center Nikola Jokic. The product was one of the most exciting games this season, featuring 18 lead changes, 9 ties, and--most importantly--a Rockets victory.

James Harden continued to do James Harden things, and while he struggled from the arc Tuesday night (2-10), he was virtually unstoppable driving inside (5-6). He finished the night with 22 points, but his greatest impact was felt as an 11-assist distributor.

Chris Paul was easily the game's biggest difference maker. Paul has struggled to find his shot early this season, which in turn had deprived the Rockets of half of the two headed monster that made them so unstoppable last season. Tuesday night marked the second vintage CP3 scoring game in a row however, as Paul dictated the offense and poured in 21 points on 7-12 shooting. When Paul and Harden are rolling, the Rockets are tough to beat.

In spite of both of the electric performances, it was Clint Capela who in fact led the team with 24 points. Capela continued to display his ability to slip behind defenses forced to crash down on Paul and Harden, while his underrated hands vacuumed up lobs to thunder through the net.

The win came in spite of yet another dismal shooting performance from Eric Gordon, mustering only 11 points in 33 minutes. His cold streak continued behind the line, connecting on just 2-7. Gordon is shooting just 23.7 percent from three this season, a far cry from his career average of 37.3%. The Rockets will have to hope that their sixth man can break out of this slump soon, otherwise it will become harder and harder to justify such a large share of minutes.

The win further proved the expendability of Carmelo Anthony, as his minutes we're distributed to more defensive-minded role players like James Ennis and Gary Clark. The result has turned Houston into a top 5 defense over the past six games. Anthony is no longer expected to rejoin the team as he remains absent from the team with what the Rockets are simply categorizing as an illness. It is believed that Anthony's camp is currently searching for a team that would be interested in his services in preparation for a mutual parting of ways between the two.

Regardless of how the Carmelo sideshow plays out, Houston still has a game to play Thursday against the defending champion Golden State Warriors. The Rockets will need to mirror the effort and style they've played with in the past two contests to have a shot, but with their rotation finally set and momentum building, Houston's chance have at least gone from laughable to possible.

Deshaun Watson takes his act to New York. Tim Warner/Getty Images

The Texans Saturday play a lousy 4-9 Jets team Saturday now without its leading rusher (Isaiah Crowell) and leading pass catcher (Quincy Enunwa). Then they face a probably Carson Wentz-less Eagles team seeing its Super Bowl championship defense die away. Then the awful Jaguars come to Houston. 12-4 is right there for the Texans, but that will only be enough for the number three seed in the AFC and a Wild Card weekend home game unless the fading Steelers rise up Sunday to knock off the Patriots. That game is in Pittsburgh. The Patriots' final two games are both at home against the Bills and Jets.

With the Patriots losing their game to the Miami Miracle, on one hand you can say the Texans blew a massive opportunity in losing at home to the Colts. On the other hand the Colts were clearly the better team in ending the Texans' nine game winning streak.

The loss to Indy was a reality check. The Texans are a pretty good team, but glaring areas of weakness keep it from being a reeeeally good team. The offensive line is flat lousy in pass protection, though sometimes Deshaun Watson makes it look even worse by holding on to the ball too long. Pending free agent moves in the offseason, one of the Texans' top two draft picks next spring MUST be spent on an offensive lineman, the other on a cornerback (if not on another o-lineman). Even in their zone-heavy scheme, the Texans lack corners who run well enough. If the pass rush isn't raising hell, the secondary is Swiss cheesy. Remember, the Texans have an extra second pick this spring, acquired from Seattle in last year's Duane Brown trade.

If somehow the Texans chump up two of their remaining three games, as long as one of the losses isn't to the Jaguars they still win the AFC South even if the Titans or Colts win out.

Coogs' house

None of the Phi Slama Jama era Houston Cougar basketball teams started a season better than 5-0. Sunday Kelvin Sampson's Coogs go for a Bo Derek (perfect 10, anybody remember Bo?) start. Only UH team ever to open 10-0: the Elvin Hayes-led '67-'68 squad that went 31-0 and along the way beat UCLA in the Game of the Century before the Bruins obliterated the Cougars at the Final Four.

The new Fertitta Center is a modest-sized gem, and currently offers the hands down best sports environment in town. Non-Cougars are never going to embrace UH in big numbers especially not in a major league sports town, so UH's "For the City" slogan doesn't hit the mark. But so what? Drawing more of the Cougar base, plus any outside of it who might have some interest piqued by intensely played quality college basketball is good enough.

Rockets rumors

The Rockets have been vastly less excitement-inducing this season, though James Harden's closing brilliance in a 50 point explosion Thursday night to put away the Lakers was a doozy. Getting back to and then over ,500 is the Rockets' near term goal. A good month of sustained quality play is needed to restore credibility. Chris Paul's overall level of play remains a serious concern. The rumor this week of their interest in Cleveland malcontent J.R. Smith, egads! That would render Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey Desperate Daryl. Morey is trying to recover from his awful offseason, but I can't believe he sees J.R. Smith as worthwhile.

Speaking of Morey's offseason work, the Rockets Saturday gain the right to trade Carmelo Anthony. What a bonanza must await in return!

Astros still armed

Not a great look for the Astros that they tugged on their purse strings while the Tampa Bay Rays of all teams guaranteed Charlie Morton $30 million dollars over the next two years. The Astros did not err. Morton was on balance outstanding in his two Astro seasons but he wore down badly this year, and at 35 years old his arm is a ticking bomb. The Astros should add an established starting pitcher, but even if Jeff Luhnow doesn't, the Collin McHugh/Brad Peacock/Josh James/Framber Valdez quartet isn't an indefensible plan to cover three rotation spots while waiting on elite prospect Forrest Whitley's arrival during the 2019 season. If poor performance/injuries are issues, nothing precludes a notable in-season trade. That Verlander fellow worked out okay a couple of seasons ago. A left handed hitter is the obvious other logical Astros' target.

Buzzer Beaters

1. Pipe down Tony La Russa. Harold Baines making the Baseball Hall of Fame is ridiculous. 2. La Russa also used to lambaste those who dared to believe that Mark McGwire might have been a steroid guy. 3. Best teams in the AFC: Bronze-Patriots Silver-Chargers Gold-Chiefs (but barely post-loser Kareem Hunt).

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