Rockets on record pace at the All-Star break

Chris Paul has been a big addition.

The Rockets notched two more convincing wins against the Timberwolves and Kings, thereby extending their latest winning streak to 10 as they headed into the all-star break. In doing so, they also climbed ahead of Golden State by half a game and now once again own the best record in the league. With the All-Star game acting as a natural pause point for everyone to play catch up now that football season is over, let’s take a moment to examine the season so far.

At 44-13 the Rockets have the best record after 57 games in franchise history. James Harden’s jaw-dropping season has all but sealed his MVP recognition later this summer. Chris Paul’s integration to the team has been nothing short of flawless and integral. Clint Capela’s continued development has proven to be ahead of schedule.

Eric Gordon has been lights out, both on and off the bench as Houston weathered multiple injuries. P.J. Tucker and Luc Mbah a Moute have transformed the Rockets bench from a defensive liability full of young players the year before to a defensive-minded, hungry group of veterans ready to scrap it out with literally anyone.

The Rockets have gone on winning streaks of 6, 14, and (currently) 10, with 25 games to go. They currently rank second in points per game, and twelfth in points allowed. That’s right, the Houston Rockets are playing some of their best defense since Jeff Van Gundy was roaming the side of the court. Their newfound defensive prowess has come from a much improved emphasis on defensive switches during half-court sets.

In the midst of all of this, three of the Rockets’ starters have missed significant time to injuries, and the result has had little effect on the court. Chris Paul has missed 18 games, while James Harden has missed seven and Trevor Ariza has missed 13. The age-old “next man up,” mentality has been employed all season to great success.

Much of that success can be attributed to Eric Gordon’s stellar play, but I would be remiss if I failed to mention the ingenious acquisition of Gerald Green. Signed in late December to fill in due to injuries, local product Green hit the court and seamlessly jelled with Coach Mike D’Antoni’s system. Consider it a savvy move anytime you sign a guy off the streets that goes on to average 13 points per game and 39% from three-point range off the bench.

The Rockets are undefeated at this point against every other team in Texas. Let that sink in. Not only are the beating them, but they’re also doing it by an average of 10 points per game against both teams. Against all currently playoff eligible western conference teams, the Rockets are 12-2.

The point of all this is that the Houston Rockets are playing some of the best basketball Houston has ever seen. And yet, it all accounts for nothing currently because of the elephant in the room:

The Golden State Warriors.

Houston won the regular season series 2-1 against the champs, and just last week wrested the top seed in the conference from their grasp. Rockets general manager Daryl Morey has specifically tailored this team’s personnel to counter everything that the Warriors do, and in so doing created a team that has proven that it can legitimately contend with every other team in the league as a result.

Even with the league’s best record, Morey continued to make moves by signing recently bought out players Brandan Wright and longtime Hawks star Joe Johnson. While Johnson is the better known name, I expect Wright--an athletic center who can swat shots--to be the more impactful signing. The Rockets only real achilles heel rested in the health of Capela, and Morey just brought in a poor man’s version with fresh legs.

But regular season wins and playoff wins are two different things. It would be a foolish to assume that the Warriors won’t switch into a completely different gear when the playoffs begin.

The difference between this season and seasons past is that it’s no longer James Harden shouldering the load by himself and switching into that gear. Not only that, but the addition of Paul has allowed Harden to rest more which should theoretically prevent another recurrence of the flare out that was witnessed during the San Antonio series last season.

I’ve watched all 57 games so far and I can tell you with confidence that yes, a healthy Houston squad has a legitimate shot against the  Warriors. With 25 games left in the season, it will be interesting to see just how strong Houston finishes. The Rockets have never posted a 60-win season. With the firepower Houston’s working with now, it’s certainly not out of the realm of possibility.


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Houston dropped two of three

Astros drop series finale to Oakland, A's win series

Jose Urquidy couldn't hold Oakland back on Saturday. Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

With Oakland finally ending their drought against the Astros on Friday night to split the first two games of the series, and with the Angels staying in step with them as both teams started the day 6-2, the Astros needed a win to keep momentum in their favor on Saturday.

Instead, Oakland would outslug Houston once again to take the series finale and take the series win. The loss moves Houston to 6-3 and down to second place, at least for now, until the 6-2 Angels complete their game on Saturday evening.

Final Score: A's 7, Astros 3

Astros' Record: 6-3, second in AL West

Winning Pitcher: Frankie Montas (1-1)

Losing Pitcher: Jose Urquidy (0-1)

Urquidy gives up four over six

Much like the night before, Oakland was able to bring in runs against Houston's starter, this time Jose Urquidy, Saturday afternoon in their second time through the order. Their first time through, Urquidy was cruising, allowing just one baserunner in the first three innings on a single in the top of the third.

Things shifted in the top of the fourth, with the A's getting back-to-back singles to set the stage for a two-run frame with dual RBI-singles to take a 2-0 lead. Oakland doubled that in the fifth, getting a two-out single to set up a two-run homer by Ramon Laureano to make it 4-0. Urquidy would go on to finish six innings, but with no run support to that point, would leave in line for the loss. His final line: 6.0 IP, 7 H, 4 R, 4 ER, 0 BB, 7 K, 93 P.

A's pad their lead before Houston gets on the board

Meanwhile, although getting five hits, the Astros could not get anything on the board against Frankie Montas through six innings. Brandon Bielak took over out of the bullpen for Urquidy in the top of the seventh, but after loading the bases, he would allow a dagger two-RBI single to make it a 6-0 deficit for Houston.

With Montas starting the seventh looking to face a batter or two before Oakland moved to their bullpen, Kyle Tucker would finally get Houston on the board with a leadoff solo home run, cutting the lead to 6-1 and ending Montas' day. Houston would get a two-out rally going, with an RBI-double by Jose Altuve followed by an RBI-triple by Michael Brantley to make it a three-run game at 6-3.

Oakland takes the series win

Ryne Stanek tried to keep it a three-run game and give the Astros a chance to stay in it in the top of the eighth but instead would give up a two-out solo home run to push Oakland's lead back to four. That 7-3 score would go final as Houston would go scoreless in the eighth and ninth.

Up Next: Houston will have a day off on Sunday before continuing this homestand Monday night by welcoming in Detroit and former manager A.J. Hinch for three games. In the series opener, the Tigers will send young star Casey Mize (0-0, 2.25 ERA) to the mound, while the Astros will get another start by Zack Greinke (1-0, 1.38 ERA).

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