Twitter Mailbag

Rockets Mailbag: Ideal playoff brackets, adjustments against micro-ball, and more

Composite photo by Jack Brame

Before the NBA suspended league-play, I received a bunch of Rockets-related questions on Twitter and never got around to answering them. Assuming the NBA does plan to wrap their season up in three months, here are the answers to some of those questions (mostly about Houston's closing stretch).


This is an awesome question because if you just flip it to "What would an ideal first round matchup for the Rockets be?", you'd get an entirely different answer. Generally, I think it's more important to prioritize seeding and first round matchups and then worry about the rest later. However, I'll put that aside to answer this question.

Even if the NBA didn't shorten the rest of the season once it returned, it was already unlikely that the Rockets could get the 2nd seed. So, you're looking at falling anywhere from 3-6 (currently 6th). No ideal matchup for the Rockets involves playing the first round at home, so I'll eliminate any scenario in which they fall to the 5th or 6th seed.

This leaves the 3rd and the 4th seed and between those two, I actually believe it's better for the Rockets to get the fourth seed. The reason is, I think the Rockets stand a better chance at beating the Lakers in round two than the Clippers. Fundamentally I believe the Clippers have a higher playoff ceiling than the Lakers and have the defensive versatility to counter everything Houston wants to do.

I also think the Rockets put the Lakers in really uncomfortable situations with their micro-ball lineups. Even if you disagree with this thesis, it doesn't really matter because the Rockets would probably have to face both teams anyways to make the Finals. They don't care when they get eliminated because the goal isn't to get eliminated at all. The difference between a second round out and a Western Conference Finals appearance is purely optics for an organization like Houston.

This leaves the obvious question: what about round one? Between the Nuggets and the Jazz, I think Houston would much rather play Utah. They have a history of making Rudy Gobert really uncomfortable defending in space and I think Denver is just better. The Rockets also lost the athletic advantage they had over Denver for years in the Clint Capela trade.

So the ideal bracket would be Rockets face the Jazz in the 4-5 matchup, then the Lakers in the 1-4, then presumably the Clippers in the Western Conference Finals, and then the Bucks in the Finals.

Ideally, the Rockets avoid the Clippers in the Western Conference Finals and play the Nuggets. Houston would also rather play any Eastern Conference team other than the Bucks. However, you have to keep the bracket somewhat realistic.

Yes, but it's really subtle. You're starting to see teams pack the paint against Houston and dare their average three-point shooters to hit shots. Houston doesn't mind this adjustment as long as these shooters actually hit shots - which they haven't been of late. I understand the logic behind leaving guys like P.J. Tucker and Robert Covington open for three, but over the course of a seven-game series, it could come back to bite these teams. They're banking on Houston having historically bad shooting efforts in the playoffs.

Which, in their defense, has happened before.

Alykhan Bijani of The Athletic wrote a more in-depth breakdown of these adjustments if you want to go see if yourself.

After the Clint Capela trade, it's pretty clear that Eric Gordon has become the third most important player on this basketball team. It's true salary-wise and on the court, Houston isn't making a deep run without a healthy and fully functioning Gordon. The problem is - he hasn't been healthy and functioning this year.

For starters, Gordon has already missed 30 out of Houston's 64 games this season due to his right knee injuries. Gordon originally started the season off really poorly, got surgery, returned and looked good, and then re-injured the knee in late February. The games he has played in have been some of the worst of his career. This, of course, is completely out of his control. However, with the nearly three months off he's about to receive, Gordon will have time to train and fully recuperate that knee.

The answer is Eric Gordon and it's a no brainer.

Their styles of play definitely conflict in that they are both high-usage ball handlers that were meant to be the hubs of their team's offense. However, Westbrook has never been efficient enough to lead an elite offense on his own and thus, it makes sense for him to adapt to being a secondary ball handler. That was never where the fit issues came from, however.

It's always been about floor spacing and Russell Westbrook's shooting. Teams didn't just start doubling and trapping James Harden because it was a new idea. They did it because it was now possible with two non-shooters on the floor in Westbrook and Clint Capela. The Clint Capela trade opened things up, however, and I think the fit has looked a lot better since.

They've had several games since where both have been very good (Minnesota, Memphis, Utah, etc…). Harden and Westbrook can succeed together. Now if the question is, "Are the pieces around them good enough to win a championship this year?", that's still up in the air. However, I do tend to lean "no" due to the current powerhouses in the Western Conference.

That has nothing to do with fit though. It has to do with team strength.

I think you were on the right track about taking that win with a grain of salt. There were, however, some things Houston could build upon. For starters, James Harden was very good and tallied 37 points, 7 assists, 4 rebounds, 2 steals, and 1 block on 11 of 19 shooting from the field and 5 of 10 shooting from three-point range. This was after two weeks of Harden struggling to make three-pointers fall.

The team as a whole also shot much better from behind the arc (15 of 38 or 40%). They looked flustered and without confidence in the past couple games and started to pass up on open looks. Defensively, the Rockets were mediocre - which is better than awful.

I guess the best term to describe that game for Houston is "baby steps".

I'll be doing more of these mailbags throughout this period without games. Be sure to follow me on Twitter for when we do another of these (@SalmanAliNBA).

Stay safe everyone!

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NASCAR: Quaker State 400 preview

Photo via: WikiCommons.

This week, the NASCAR cup series heads to Kentucky Motor Speedway for the Quaker State 400. Built in 2001, this track is a 1.5 mile tri-oval with a dog-leg on the front stretch. The most dangerous part of the track has to be turn three as the corner is flat compared to the other three corners that are banked. This has been a major point of contingency for these drivers as most of the cautions end up being there. Look for turn three to be a hot spot come Sunday. Last year, both the Busch brothers finished 1-2 in one of the most exciting finishes of the season so there will be a lot of hype for this race to live up to.

Last week at Indy, as we all expected the race was a crazy one. Over the course of the race's 160 laps, we saw many horrific accidents including a scary pit road accident involving Corey Lajoe, Ryan Blaney, Justin Allgier, Ryan Preece and others. The wreck started when everyone got stacked up entering the pits and the calamity was on from there. During the wreck Brennan Poole struck Rear Tire Changer Zach Price as he was trying to avoid the wrecking cars in front of him. After the incident fans and media alike all held their breath as they awaited news on his condition. But when the camera panned to him being loaded into the ambulance, there was a huge sigh of relief as he gave everyone a thumbs up signifying he was okay. Another scary moment was both Erik Jones and Alex Bowman's vicious crashes. Both cars had tire failures that sent their cars directly into the wall. Fortunately both drivers were okay but their days were over.

In the end, tire wear would end up claiming one more victim as it took out Denny Hamlin as well. With seven laps to go, the four-time winner this season was in prime position to get his fifth victory until his right front tire blew out, sending him hard into the turn 2 wall. This mishap handed the win to his main rival in the championship, Kevin Harvick, as he went on to claim his third Brickyard 400 victory and fourth win of the year. When it was all over, many questioned why there were so many tire failures and if new owner Roger Penske would make an effort to possibly widen the pit-road after the massive accident on Sunday.

Needless to say, there are a lot of questions on what will be different at Indy in 2021. When I talked to spotter Freddie Kraft on Tuesday, he gave a lot of good insights on both topics. When it came to the tire failures, he talked about how the increasing corner speeds at the racetrack has put a lot of pressure on these Goodyear tires which eventually led to them coming apart. As far as Pit-Road and what they can do to fix that, he talked about how it is difficult to make changes to a track that is so historical. Which makes sense, but he followed this up by saying that maybe it would be wise to give up a little history and move the wall over and make it wider. It will be interesting to see what NASCAR does in the coming months.

On Friday, Associated Press journalist Jenna Fryer revealed a bombshell announcement that 7-time champion and NASCAR's biggest name Jimmie Johnson, had tested positive for coronavirus. As everyone knows, the world is going through the worst pandemic it's ever faced in this lifetime. With the sport coming back and racing again, it was only a matter of time until one of the drivers came down with it. Unfortunately it had to be NASCAR's most recognizable driver. Thankfully, Jimmie made a full recovery and was cleared to return this weekend at Kentucky. This was a big scare for everyone in the NASCAR world, but I have to give a lot of credit to Johnson for being as forthright as he was about his diagnosis with everyone who he works with. It will be good to have Jimmie back on Sunday.

The driver that I have winning this weekend is Kyle Busch. While this season has been a disappointment for the defending champion, Kentucky would be a great place for him to turn it around. Ever since the cup series has started going there, Kyle has always been in contention to win. In fact, he won the first cup series race that was run at this track back in 2011. In his nine starts there, Kyle has finished outside the top ten only once and even then he finished 12th, back in 2016. Last season it appeared that Kyle was on his way to a third victory at this track, but he came up one spot short to his brother Kurt in a fantastic last lap duel. After a late race restart this weekend though, I see Kyle redeeming himself and capturing his first victory of 2020. Look for Kyle to get back on track come Sunday.


All stats and information used in this article are brought to you by the good folks at driveraverages.com and Racing-Reference.com, the best websites for all NASCAR stats.

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