LOOKING AHEAD

Rockets-Timberwolves round 1 playoff preview

James Harden and Chris Paul should make easy work of Minnesota. Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

It only took 82 games for the playoff picture to be set, and as the Rio Grande Valley Vipers--I mean the Rockets bench tipped off against the Sacramento Kings, it was finally determined that Houston would be facing the Minnesota Timberwolves. The Timberwolves snapped a 14-year playoff drought with their win Wednesday night, and the reward for their efforts will be a Rockets team that didn't just sweep them in the regular season, they were blown out in almost every contest.

In four matchups the Rockets swept the Timberwolves, averaging 123 points per games to Minnesota's 107 points per game. As we await the start of the postseason, let's take a look at the position by position matchups.

Point Guard: Chris Paul versus Jeff Teague

Advantage: Houston

Chris Paul's ability to create his own shot commands opposing defenses to remain honest instead of shading over to shut James Harden down. Add in the fact that he's been creating shots for teammates long before Harden finished this season third in the league in assists, and you have a dangerous backcourt that can drive and score or rain it from deep.

Jeff Teague is a capable scorer but is used more as a facilitator in a lineup that features far more firepower in other positions.

Shooting Guard: James Harden versus Jimmy Butler

Advantage: Houston

Expect Jimmy Butler to get his during the series offensively, but he's not James Harden. Harden, a practical lock to secure his first MVP award, will be the deciding factor in not only this series, but the entire playoffs. Previous playoff appearances featuring a much more overused and exhausted Harden have left a bad taste in Rockets fans’ mouths, as his performance has tended to drop sharply. Much more attention has been paid to keeping his minutes down and focusing on rest, so this postseason should hopefully not be a repeat.

Either way, Jimmy Buckets doesn't take James Buckets in this matchup.

Small Forward: Trevor Ariza versus Andrew Wiggins

Advantage: Push

Minnesota's Andrew Wiggins definitely wins the athletic category running away, and his continued scoring ability development overshadows Ariza’s. Ariza, however is not meant to be the offensive focus of the Rockets. You point Ariza at a player, and Ariza shuts that player down defensively, while knocking down open threes created by Harden and Paul. Wiggins will score more than Ariza, but Ariza’s defensive presence will make up for it.

Power Forward: P.J. Tucker versus Taj Gibson

Advantage: Minnesota

P.J. Tucker is a stocky small forward whose relentless defense and three point shooting ability earned him the starting role over Ryan Anderson late in the season. Taj Gibson is a much more prototypical power forward, with a nasty defensive streak. So while Tucker may beat him on fast breaks and help stretch the defense, Gibson's size will be a lot for Tucker to handle. He'll have to channel his inner Chuck Hayes this series to help neutralize Gibson's above average inside presence.

Center: Clint Capela versus Karl Anthony-Towns

Advantage: Minnesota

Clint Capela has cemented himself as an integral part of what the Rockets do on both sides of the ball. He's an athletic center that understands his role offensively and serves as the Rockets’ primary post defender--a role he has excelled in this season. He is in essence a role player at this moment and on this team, but his presence is much more impactful than that term implies.

Karl Anthony-Towns, however, is an absolute freak of nature. Seemingly developed in a lab to embody the perfect center, KAT will be an absolute handful to contain. He's more athletic than most wings, and has the size and length to dominate the paint on both ends of the court. Capela will honestly only be expected to try his best, because KAT will be coming to Houston hungry.

Bench advantage: Houston

The Timberwolves have Jamal Crawford who is still a handful off the bench, but aside from that, the bench simply does not stand out.

The Rockets, even without Luc Mbah a Moute, feature plenty of firepower. Aside from reigning Sixth Man of the year, Eric Gordon, Houston will throw a scrappy Gerald Green, three-point threat Ryan Anderson, and the veteran center Nene--whom the Rockets have done their best to keep fresh for the postseason--at the Timberwolves for 48 minutes. This is where the Rockets will impose their will.

Verdict:

The Rockets are simply too talented and too deep to lose to this promising young Timberwolves team. From a position by position breakdown it may seem closer than it is, but the difference is that the positions that the Rockets are superior in, they are exponentially more superior.

Prediction: Rockets in five

 

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Houston is falling down the rankings

Tigers pound Odorizzi, Astros with homers as Houston drops fourth in a row

The Astros have not looked great in their last four games. Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

After watching their hot start of 6-1 cool down to a 6-4 record with three straight losses, the Astros returned to Minute Maid Park on Tuesday night, looking to do a better job at home against a beatable Tigers team.

Recent games' woes would continue, though, with Houston's pitching getting blasted by the opposing offense and their own bats primarily quiet.

Final Score: Tigers 8, Astros 2

Astros' Record: 6-5, tied for second in AL West

Winning Pitcher: Matthew Boyd (2-1)

Losing Pitcher: Jake Odorizzi (0-1)

Astros score first, then Tigers unload on Odorizzi

Houston looked to have something brewing in the bottom of the second, with three singles in the first four batters of the inning, the third an RBI-single by Myles Straw to put the Astros in front 1-0. However, Matthew Boyd would limit the damage, getting back-to-back strikeouts to end the threat.

After two easy innings for Jake Odorizzi in his regular-season debut for his new team, he would allow a game-tying solo homer to Akil Baddoo, his fourth of the year, in the top of the third. Detroit struck again in the top of the fourth, getting a leadoff double to set up a two-run go-ahead home run to jump ahead 3-1.

They didn't stop there, getting another two-run bomb later in the same inning; a frame that would take Odorizzi 31 pitches to get only one out before Houston would bring in Bryan Abreu to get the last two outs. Odorizzi's final line in his debut: 3.1 IP, 7 H, 5 ER, 3 HR, 0 BB, 4 K, 80 P.


Detroit continues home run parade, Houston loses fourth in a row

Abreu would hope to do what Luis Garcia did the night before, eat up as many innings as possible after a poor outing from Houston's starter. The Tigers would get yet another two-run homer, though, in the top of the fifth, extending their lead to 7-1, with all seven runs coming over a three-inning span. For good measure, they'd knock one more out with two outs in the top of the ninth, making it 8-1.

As far as Houston at the plate, other than their string of hits to bring in a run earlier in the second, they were getting nothing done against Boyd, who would go six and two-thirds innings. Detroit's bullpen would finish things off, despite an all-too-late sac fly by the Astros in the bottom of the ninth, with Houston dropping their fourth-straight game and continuing to lose ground in the division.

Up Next: The finale of this three-game set with Detroit will be an hour earlier on Wednesday, getting underway at 6:10 PM Central. Lance McCullers Jr. (1-0, 1.80 ERA) will try to maintain his perfect record and improve upon his two five-inning one-run starts for the Astros, going opposite of Michael Fulmer (0-0, 2.57 ERA) for the Tigers.

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