James Harden and Clint Capela had big games. Tim Warner/Getty Images
Houston kicked off the first week of November with a matchup against the Indiana Pacers Monday night. As healthy and unsuspended as the team had been all season, Monday provided a perfect opportunity to prove whether or not Houston's woeful start would persist, or their struggles were in fact a result of an unfortunate, injury-riddled start to the season.
Signs were encouraging as Houston exploded out of the gate offensively. Shades of last season were evident as Capela crashed the glass and slammed down alley oops, while Harden poured in from three. Of note would be just how much trust has been given to the two rookies Gary Clark and Isaiah Hartenstein, both of whom hustled hard. Pacers guard Victor Oladipo kept it close, but Harden's 11 points helped to keep the Pacers at bay. Rockets led 29-22 at the end.
Harden continued to do Harden things, but unfortunately he was virtually the only offense Houston was able to reliably muster. Oladipo refused to be stopped, and with help from Domantas Sabonis the Pacers reclaimed the lead. Chris Paul, Gerald Green, and Carmelo Anthony were held to a total of zero points for the half, yet Houston only trailed by two, 55-53. Harden with 18 points, Oladipo matching with 16.
The Pacers began to clamp down on defense, forcing a slew of Rockets turnovers. A continued woeful performance from Houston beyond the arc provided zero relief as the Pacers continued to assert themselves. The Rockets would slog through a 20-16 Pacers-led third quarter to push the lead to 75-69.
The thing is, Houston's defense never really slumped throughout their matchup with the 7-3 Pacers. The problem rested solely in their complete ineptitude to convert wide open three-point looks throughout the contest. The narrative finally changed in the fourth quarter, that is, as the Rockets ignited from three while simultaneously ratcheting down on defense. The 29-19 fourth would prove to be enough for Houston to escape the late game foul/free throw game with a victory. Harden finished the game with 28 points and 6 assists, while Oladipo matched for the Pacers with 28 points and 6 rebounds.
Rookie confidence: Coach Mike D'Antoni has opted in the past three games to lean on his rookie tandem over more experienced players and the result can be seen directly in the win/loss column. During the current three-game winning streak, the Isaiah Hartenstein and Gary Clark rookie combo has trounced Michael Carter-Williams and Marquese Chriss by an 82-6 minutes distribution. Let the kids do work.
Extra Capela: Clint Capela finished the night with a respectable 18 points and 10 rebounds. The effort marked his sixth straight double-double, which is the longest streak of his career.
True test: The Rockets are suddenly riding a three-game winning streak, but the rest of the week will be a true litmus test as to whether Houston's rough start was merely an aberration. Thursday Houston clashes with the Oklahoma City Thunder before a Saturday Spurs match and a Sunday Pacers rematch. If Houston can string together a winning week, it will do wonders to assuage a rightfully nervous fan base.
Houston at Oklahoma City, Thursday
As the Astros prepare to play their first game of spring training against the Nationals this Saturday, we're starting to see reports about how the players approached the offseason, and what tweaks they made to improve in the 2024 season.
Cristian Javier is a player Astros fans are hoping bounces back this year, as his ERA jumped from 2.54 in 2022 to 4.56 in 2023. Workload was thought to be one of the main factors causing his regression, he dealt with a dead arm last season and threw more innings than ever before (162).
Another explanation could be the pitch clock. This was another new element all pitchers had to deal with last year, and that also likely played a role in his struggles.
But according to The Athletic's Chandler Rome, Javier believes he was carrying some extra weight last season. Add that to some mechanical issues he was experiencing, and his struggles in 2023 make a lot more sense. And to be fair, he wouldn't be the first person to get a little fat and happy after winning a World Series.
Cristian Javier said he lost around 15 pounds this offseason. He acknowledged that some of his struggles last year could be attributed to some extra weight he was carrying around in addition to the already-documented mechanical flaws he had.
— Chandler Rome (@Chandler_Rome) February 22, 2024
In an effort to get back on track in 2024, Javier said he lost around 15 pounds this offseason. With the pitch clock not going anywhere, pitchers need to be in better cardiac shape than ever before.
Hopefully this modification helps Javier return to form and put up jaw-dropping numbers like he did in 2022. This rotation needs Javier to be the dominate pitcher we all know he's capable of being. With Justin Verlander behind schedule and Framber Valdez trying to bounce back from his own down year, Houston will depend on Javier like never before.
The Astros are certainly counting on it after giving him a 5-year, $64 million contract last season. Javier will definitely be a player to watch this spring.