NBA REWIND

Rockets roll through another unbeaten week with two easy victories (and more to come)

Chris Paul had another big week. Rockets.com

This past week the Rockets had a light workload and plenty of time to enjoy long holiday weekend. The Rockets started the week Wednesday with yet another blowout versus the Nuggets, followed by a Saturday comeback win against the Knicks to complete an unbeaten week 6. With the two wins this week they extend their current winning streak to four. The Rockets are second in the league, first in the Western Conference, and first in the Southwest Division with a three game lead at 15-4 on the season.

Game Eighteen: Rockets vs Denver Nuggets (W, 125-95)

The Rockets had tied a bow on this one before halftime. A 36-17 first quarter ignited one the season’s biggest blowouts, leading at one point by 48 points. Chris Paul and James Harden continued to silence critics over their ability to play together, as Paul punched in a double-double (23 points, 13 assists), to pair with Harden’s flirtation with a triple-double (21 points, 9 assists, 8 rebounds). Trevor Ariza was 7 of 10 from beyond the arc and led the team with 25 points, marking his second 20-point game of the season. Luc Mbah a Moute registered a plus-57 for the game, which is the best plus-minus a player has achieved in 20 seasons.

Game Nineteen: Rockets vs New York Knicks (W, 117-102)

There seemed to be a bit of a holiday hangover to start the contest, as the Knicks jumped out to a 39-29 first quarter despite operating without their star, Kristaps Porzingis. The Knicks’ lead would quickly erode in the second and the Rockets would head into halftime down by only 3. The Rockets clamped down defensively in the third, holding the Knicks to 13 points. Harden continued to do Harden things with a 37-point 10-assist outing. Paul put in his first 30-plus minute effort with the Rockets this season, logging 6 points and 13 assists. Replaced in the starting lineup by P.J. Tucker, Ryan Anderson added 17 points and 7 rebounds off the bench. The Rockets would go on to erase a first quarter 22-point deficit and win by 15.

Takeaways:

  • Keep it (under) 100: With the Rockets’ 125-95 win over the Nuggets, they are now 7-1 on the season when they hold their opponents under 100 points

  • Despite a short week for the Rockets, Harden continues to lead the league in points and assists. Russell Westbrook is closing in on assists, but there’s a 55 point gap between Harden and current runner up, LeBron James.

  • Spoiler alert: Chris Paul makes the Rockets better. Since his return from injury, the Rockets are averaging roughly 122 points per game. That’s 9 points more than when Paul was sidelined. They’re also undefeated when he’s been in the lineup.

Rockets Player of the Week (not named James Harden):

For now it’s Chris Paul once again. Fairly soon I think I’ll have to change the title and add Paul, but for now since he’s still fresh I’ll give him some spotlight. In week six he averaged 14.5 points, 12.5 assists, and 2.5 steals.

Looking Ahead:

The Rockets will be back in action Monday against the Brooklyn Nets for the first of three games this week. Wednesday they’ll wrap up their homestand with their second look at Indiana, followed by a late Sunday game in LA for their first contest against the Lakers.

The Brooklyn Nets are just not a very good team, with their highest scoring threat averaging 14.8 points per game. Oladipo has shined as the centerpiece for the Pacers this season, yet the Pacers were thoroughly outmatched in their first meeting against the Rockets--losing by 23. The Lakers are 8-11 currently and have not yet played the Rockets this season.

It’s beginning to sound like I’m a homer more and more with these predictions, but I honestly can’t see the Rockets dropping more than one game this week. I’ll call my shot and say that the Rockets extend their win streak to 7 by this time next week.

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Jose Altuve is on a roll. Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images.

And then there were six. Games left in the Astros’ regular season. Three vs. Tampa Bay then three vs. Philadelphia, all at Minute Maid Park. The first three are important for the Rays as they jockey for Wild Card positioning with the Blue Jays and Mariners. The second three games decide playoffs or no playoffs for the Phillies as they try to stave off the Brewers. The Astros have nothing to play for with regard to the standings but it’s still a fun finish to another fabulous season. 102-54! Matching or topping the franchise record of 107 regular season wins would be grand, but it’s not a goal they’re going to push the limits to achieve. There are a couple individual pursuits of note this final week. We’ll hit those then get to truly important stuff to be settled on before the Astros start their postseason October 11.

Crunching the numbers

Three weeks ago I wrote that Jose Altuve needed a tremendous finishing kick to get there, but that his first .300 batting average season since 2018 was within striking distance. He promptly went one for eight over his next two games, lengthening the odds against him. In 15 games since Altuve has sizzled, banging out 21 hits in 54 at bats for a .389 average. So with six games to go he’s at .297. If Altuve gets 20 more official at bats he needs eight hits.

Yordan Alvarez’s assorted maladies sure cause some indigestion. The knee history, the hands, and now an ankle roll. Yordan is still four RBI short of joining Kyle Tucker with 100+. They’d be the Astros first 100+ tandem since…just three years ago when Alex Bregman (112) and Yuli Gurriel (104) did it.

Setting the playoff rotation

The playoff schedule is stupid in spots, dictated by television. The Astros against To Be Determined in their best-of-five American League Division Series will have game one Tuesday October 11, then a day off before game two Thursday, then a day off before game three Saturday (same is true for Yankees vs. To Be Determined). That’s ridiculous, and gives longtime Astros fans Kevin Brown nightmares (see 1998 NLDS). Unless there’s a three game sweep, game four would be Sunday. Should the series go to a decisive fifth game, there is no off day between games four and five. This impacts starting pitcher planning. Obviously the Astros go Justin Verlander in game one and Framber Valdez in game two. Almost certainly Lance McCullers gets the ball in game three. Then (unless the series is a sweep) there is a decision to be made. First, with the two off days Verlander would be available on four days rest. Up 2-1 last year, after a rainout the Astros brought back McCullers on a shorter four days rest (game one was a night game, game four a day game) and Lance blew out his arm again. If up two games to one, pitching Verlander on “normal” four days rest to go for the kill would take him out of the American League Championship Series until game three, and that would be his only starting availability in the ALCS unless you’d foolishly bring him back on three days rest if there was a game seven. So, if up 2-1 the smarter play is to start Cristian Javier in game four which has Verlander ready to go in a do-or-die game five or if the Astros advance in four, game one of the American League Championship Series. If down 2-1 and you pitch Verlander, if there’s a game five it’s the guy you passed over in game four, or Framber on three days rest.

Yes, Javier in game four, over Jose Urquidy and Luis Garcia because quite simply, Javier is better. Unless Verlander or Valdez gets knocked out early, committing Javier to a bullpen role where he’d throw two or three innings vs. the six or so you’d expect out of him as a starter doesn’t make sense, definitely not with the first round schedule. Presumably Urquidy or Garcia will be on the roster for long reliever duty (carrying both would be poor roster management). The Astros have the best bullpen in the Major Leagues. Getting cute and using Javier over Ryne Stanek, Rafael Montero, or Ryan Pressly would be silly. Over Hector Neris or Bryan Abreu? Maybe. When Javier is vulnerable it’s walks and home runs that typically get him, so bringing him in in a tight seventh or eighth inning spot would be a dubious choice given the high caliber alternatives.

As for the roster, teams can change it round by round. Carrying 13 pitchers in a best-of-five with two scheduled off days is impractical. The Astros should carry Yainer Diaz or Korey Lee as a third catcher and David Hensley as an extra utility option. 12 pitchers: Verlander, Valdez, McCullers, Javier, Urquidy OR Garcia, Pressly, Montero, Stanek, Neris, Abreu, Will Smith, Hunter Brown OR Phil Maton.

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