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

Rockets James Harden Russell Westbrook
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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Astros defeat the Rangers, 9-2. Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images.

Kyle Tucker doubled twice and had three RBIs and Jose Altuve added three hits and drove in two runs as the Houston Astros used a seven-run seventh inning to break a tie and coast to a 9-2 victory over the Texas Rangers on Saturday.

The Astros snapped a four-game skid and bounced back after allowing the Rangers to score their season high in a 12-8 win in the series opener.

Altuve said he hopes this game can help get the Astros on a roll after their early struggles.

“We as a team are very confident... this is the kind of team we are, we have done it before,” Altuve said. “I don't see why we can't start doing it again.”

It was tied at 2 and the bases were loaded with one out in the seventh when pinch-hitter Victor Caratini’s RBI single to right field off José Ureña (0-1) put the Astros on top.

Altuve followed with a double to the corner of left field to send two more home and push the lead to 5-2. Austin Pruitt took over and intentionally walked Yordan Alvarez before Tucker doubled to center field to score two more.

Houston made it 9-2 when Alvarez scored on a sacrifice fly by Yainer Diaz.

“That was great,” manager Joe Espada said. “That’s the offense that I’m used to seeing. When we get pitchers against the ropes, we've got to put them away and that’s exactly what we did today.”

Ronel Blanco, who threw a no-hitter in his season debut and pitched six scoreless innings Sunday, gave the Astros another solid start Saturday. He gave up two runs in the first inning before settling down to pitch five scoreless frames. He allowed five singles with three walks and five strikeouts.

It was a much-needed performance after Houston’s starters had allowed 31 earned runs with a 20.93 ERA across 13 1/3 innings in the last five games.

“It started with Blanco,” Espada said. “He set the stage and then our offense got some big hits.”

Texas starter Andrew Heaney yielded four hits and two runs while walking four in 3 2/3 innings.

“I’m fighting myself a little bit right now, mechanically, mentally, just having a hard time getting some traction, getting going,” he said. "So I’m just going to keep working.”

The Rangers loaded the bases with two outs in the seventh, but Bryan Abreu (1-1) struck out Evan Carter to escape the jam before Houston took the lead in the bottom of the inning.

Rookie Wyatt Langford had two hits and an RBI for Texas and Adolis García added two hits.

Houston’s José Abreu, who is hitting just .122 this season, had two hits with a double for his first multi-hit game this season and his first extra base hit of the year.

Blanco walked Evan Carter and García with two outs in the first before giving up his first run of the season on an RBI single by Josh Smith. Langford followed with a run-scoring single to push the lead to 2-0.

Abreu opened the fourth with a double and moved to third on a groundout by Jake Meyers before scoring on a groundout by Mauricio Dubón to cut the lead to 2-1.

Heaney then hit Altuve and Alvarez with pitches and was lifted for Jacob Latz. Tucker lined a double into center field to score Altuve and tie it at 2-2.

TRAINER’S ROOM

Rangers: LHP Brock Burke was placed on the 15-day injured list Saturday after breaking his right hand punching a wall after a poor outing Friday night. … Pruitt had his contract selected from Triple-A Round Rock to take his spot on the roster. … INF Justin Foscue (left oblique strain) was transferred from the 10-day injured list to the 60-day list.

Astros: 3B Alex Bregman missed a second straight game with flu-like symptoms. … RHP Shawn Dubin (forearm strain) was reinstated from the 15-day injured list Saturday to take the spot of RHP Joel Kuhnel, who was optioned to Triple-A Sugar Land.

UP NEXT

Texas RHP Nathan Eovaldi (1-0, 1.45 ERA) opposes RHP Cristian Javier (1-0, 1.10) in the series finale Sunday.

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