James Harden and Chris Paul are cruising to the playoffs. Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
This week was all about refocusing and staying sharp while the murky Western Conference playoff picture begins to clarify itself. Challenging three potentially playoff bound opponents this week, the Rockets chased the Wizards out of the building before weathering ferocious Portland rally and falling to a desperate Thunder team. Houston has already clinched the best record in the league and has secured home court advantage throughout the playoffs for the first time in Rockets franchise history.
Game 78: Rockets vs Washington Wizards (W, 104-120)
One of the most telling marks of a serious contender is a team’s ability to quickly shake off a poor performance, and Tuesday night the Rockets did just that. Having clinched a spot in the Eastern Conference playoffs, the Washington Wizards came into town hungry to improve their seeding but were very quickly turned away at the door by a Houston team that was once again back to full strength. Houston lunged out to what would prove to be an insurmountable 71-49 first half lead. The remainder of the matchup was equally contested, but the damage had already been done. James Harden finished with 38 points, 10 rebounds, and 9 assists. Clint Capela added 21 points, 10 rebounds, and 2 blocks.
Game 79: Rockets vs Portland Trail Blazers (W, 96-94)
The last matchup between the Rockets and Trail Blazers was everything you’d expect a one versus three seed to be in terms of competitiveness, so there was some anticipation surrounding this game as far as how the Rockets would perform given last week’s lackluster effort. A 36-17 first quarter quieted that narrative almost immediately, as Portland was simply unable to keep up with the barrage of three-pointers converted by a freneticaly paced Rockets squad. Houston maintained a sizeable lead until about five minutes left, when sloppy play on the Rockets end helped trigger a 19-2 run and erase the lead. Counter-intuitive to the Rockets’ typical philosophy, it was not a three point shot that sealed the game, but rather a Chris Paul dribble-drive layup to pierce through the perimeter-heavy defense with 0.8 seconds left. It was only the seventh game this season the Rockets failed to surpass the 100-point plateau, and Houston is 3-4 in those instances. Paul led the team with 27 points, 4 rebounds and 5 assists, while Harden followed with 24 points, 6 rebounds, and 7 assists.
Game 80: Rockets versus Oklahoma City Thunder (L, 108-102)
Houston’s luck would run out Saturday night against a hungry Thunder team that has yet to clinch a playoff spot in once of the tightest Western Conference races in recent memory. The matchup was a dogfight throughout, until the last few minutes when the Thunder went on an untimely 11-0 run to seal it, marking one of the few season series the Rockets have lost this year. Harden finished with 26 points and 9 assists.
The Rockets finish the season this week, with their final two games against the playoff eliminated Lakers and Kings squads in a Tuesday/Wednesday back-to-back away stretch. The Rockets should use these next two games to tune up their playoff roster and rest whoever necessary. These last two games mean nothing, as the Rockets have already clinched home court advantage throughout the playoffs. The Rockets are 2-1 against the Lakers this season and 2-0 against Sacramento, so it’s not a stretch to expect an undefeated final week en route to Houston’s first ever 66-win season.
Houston Astros skipper Joe Espada wasted no time this week at spring training by answering one of the most talked about questions of the offseason.
Espada revealed that newly-acquired free agent Josh Hader will be the team's closer and will pitch the ninth inning, with Ryan Pressly working as the setup man.
Bryan Abreu will be tapped to pitch the seventh inning, but it wouldn't shock anyone if he had the best season of the three. But after Abreu, things get interesting in the bullpen.
Who pitches the sixth inning?
Astros GM Dana Brown gave Rafael Montero a vote of confidence, saying he's “legit.”
While we have our concerns about Montero after he finished with an ERA over five last year, there's reason for hope. The nature of relief pitchers halving up and down seasons from year to year could work in Montero's favor.
And with the salary that's already committed to him, Brown will likely give him every opportunity to justify his contract. It will be fascinating to see how Espada deploys him early on. You have to think with the boss man backing Montero, Espada will be on board too.
But if he does struggle, will Espada quickly stop using him in critical situations? The good news is, the team won't often have to turn to him in high leverage situations with Abreu, Pressly, and Hader ready to handle those duties.
Be sure to watch the video above for the full discussion about the Astros 'pen, and much more!
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