SHOOTING BLANKS

Rockets offense stuggles becoming a serious issue

Rockets offense stuggles becoming a serious issue
Mike D'Antoni and the Rockets are looking for answers. Harry How/Getty Images

Houston entered Thursday night’s contest against the Oklahoma City Thunder looking to even their record on the season and start fresh after a forgettable 1-5 start. A gutty effort on Monday against a Pacers team with a 7-3 record produced an impressive 98-94 win, and hinted that the Rockets had begun to recompose themselves after their rough start. Oklahoma City - sans their all-world guard Russell Westbrook - turned Houston away at the door, however, handed the Rockets a crushing defeat, 98-80, and left them with more questions than answers.

The loss against an undermanned Thunder team not only sets the Rockets back in the standings - something Houston can’t really afford to do much longer - it also casts serious doubt on the Rocket’s chances this season of returning to the Western Conference Finals. Patience was exercised to start the season as the Rockets dealt with health and suspension complications. Once the highly-touted Chris Paul/James Harden duo finally returned to the court together, the wins followed along and Houston strung together a three-game winning streak. Those expecting the high flying offense that was put on display last season, however, have been disappointed.

In a season punctuated by over-inflated point totals as a result of league-wide rule changes, the Rockets have failed to break the 100-point plateau in four of their past five matchups. After last night’s brick-fest, the Rockets’ offensive rating has dropped to 103.9, good for 26th in the league. Their true shooting percentage is 52.8, which is better than only the Pistons and the Magic. This is the offensive territory Houston currently resides in. Last season they finished No. 1 and 2 in those respective categories league-wide. The Rockets are reeling.

Houston has been known as the team that fires off more 3-pointers than any other team in the league. It’s a sound philosophy when it works and you have shooters knocking down their shots. So far this season, no one has consistently managed to do so. Chris Paul, who signed a four-year $160 million maximum contract in July, is shooting 27.1% from three-point range. Gerald Green, a career 35.9% sniper, has been even worse at 26.3%. You could argue that they’re missing Eric Gordon’s contributions while he recovers from injury, but that’s simply not the case. Before Gordon sat with a hip issue, he was even worse with 23.6% from three.  It’s not just one person slumping, it is a collective struggle.

If you’re looking for answers as to why the Rockets offense has become so lethargic, look no further than just beyond the arc. Houston is No. 1 in the league in 3-point attempts per game. They are 25th, however, in 3-point percentage. The Rockets have lost their shot at the moment, and that’s alarming.

I understand that it’s just one loss, but this isn’t about one game. It’s about the continuation of a season long inability to do the one thing the Rockets are known for, which is launch 3-pointers. Houston’s 11-of-42 night from beyond the arc last night showed that maybe the Rockets aren’t in fact back. Maybe this just isn’t a good enough team as built. If that’s the case, don’t be surprised if General Manager Daryl Morey starts finding new homes for players sooner than later. Houston is built to win, and win now. Right now nothing is going right, and the Rockets are running out of time to figure things out.




 

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The Astros have their work cut out for them. Composite Getty Image.

Through 20 games, the Houston Astros have managed just six wins and are in last place in the AL West.

Their pitching staff trails only Colorado with a 5.24 ERA and big-money new closer Josh Hader has given up the same number of earned runs in 10 games as he did in 61 last year.

Despite this, these veteran Astros, who have reached the AL Championship Series seven consecutive times, have no doubt they’ll turn things around.

“If there’s a team that can do it, it’s this team,” shortstop Jeremy Peña said.

First-year manager Joe Espada, who was hired in January to replace the retired Dusty Baker, discussed his team’s early struggles.

“It’s not ideal,” he said. “It’s not what we expected, to come out of the shoot playing this type of baseball. But you know what, this is where we’re at and we’ve got to pick it up and play better. That’s just the bottom line.”

Many of Houston’s problems have stemmed from a poor performance by a rotation that has been decimated by injuries. Ace Justin Verlander and fellow starter José Urquidy haven’t pitched this season because of injuries and lefty Framber Valdez made just two starts before landing on the injured list with a sore elbow.

Ronel Blanco, who threw a no-hitter in his season debut April 1, has pitched well and is 2-0 with a 0.86 ERA in three starts this season. Cristian Javier is also off to a good start, going 2-0 with a 1.54 ERA in four starts, but the team has won just two games not started by those two pitchers.

However, Espada wouldn’t blame the rotation for Houston’s current position.

“It’s been a little bit of a roller coaster how we've played overall,” he said. “One day we get good starting pitching, some days we don’t. The middle relief has been better and sometimes it hasn’t been. So, we’ve just got to put it all together and then play more as a team. And once we start doing that, we’ll be in good shape.”

The good news for the Astros is that Verlander will make his season debut Friday night when they open a series at Washington and Valdez should return soon after him.

“Framber and Justin have been a great part of our success in the last few years,” second baseman Jose Altuve said. “So, it’s always good to have those two guys back helping the team. We trust them and I think it’s going to be good.”

Hader signed a five-year, $95 million contract this offseason to give the Astros a shutdown 7-8-9 combination at the back end of their bullpen with Bryan Abreu and Ryan Pressly. But the five-time All-Star is off to a bumpy start.

He allowed four runs in the ninth inning of a 6-1 loss to the Braves on Monday night and has yielded eight earned runs this season after giving up the same number in 56 1/3 innings for San Diego last year.

He was much better Wednesday when he struck out the side in the ninth before the Astros fell to Atlanta in 10 innings for their third straight loss.

Houston’s offense, led by Altuve, Yordan Alvarez and Kyle Tucker, ranks third in the majors with a .268 batting average and is tied for third with 24 homers this season. But the Astros have struggled with runners in scoring position and often failed to get a big hit in close games.

While many of Houston’s hitters have thrived this season, one notable exception is first baseman José Abreu. The 37-year-old, who is in the second year of a three-year, $58.5 million contract, is hitting 0.78 with just one extra-base hit in 16 games, raising questions about why he remains in the lineup every day.

To make matters worse, his error on a routine ground ball in the eighth inning Wednesday helped the Braves tie the game before they won in extra innings.

Espada brushed off criticism of Abreu and said he knows the 2020 AL MVP can break out of his early slump.

“Because (of) history,” Espada said. “The back of his baseball card. He can do it.”

Though things haven’t gone well for the Astros so far, everyone insists there’s no panic in this team which won its second World Series in 2022.

Altuve added that he doesn’t have to say anything to his teammates during this tough time.

“I think they’ve played enough baseball to know how to control themselves and how to come back to the plan we have, which is winning games,” he said.

The clubhouse was quiet and somber Wednesday after the Astros suffered their third series sweep of the season and second at home. While not panicking about the slow start, this team, which has won at least 90 games in each of the last three seasons, is certainly not happy with its record.

“We need to do everything better,” third baseman Alex Bregman said. “I feel like we’re in a lot of games, but we just haven’t found a way to win them. And good teams find a way to win games. So we need to find a way to win games.”

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