The Rockets Report

Rockets win streak reaches nine with tougher tests coming this week

Things are pointing in the right direction for James Harden and the Rockets. NBA.COM

The Rockets capitalized on the extra rest they were afforded during their two-game work schedule this past week, stretching their winning streak to nine games after beating the Utah Jazz last Thursday and winning an absolute battle with the Portland Trail Blazers this past Saturday. With two more wins, the Rockets have taken over as the best team in the league.

Game 23: Rockets at Utah Jazz (W, 112-101)

It seems as though in almost every game the Rockets play in, they have an offensive explosion that opposing teams simply cannot recover from. In this case, that explosion came in the form of a 37-point third quarter. James Harden led the game with 29 points, followed by Ryan Anderson with 23. Chris Paul continued to play his role as the glue guy, adding 18 points, 13 assists, 9 rebounds, and 3 steals.

Game 24: Rockets at Portland Trail Blazers (W, 124-117)

The Rockets have been beating teams so handily this season that the only narrative angle anyone has been able to come up with as far as a potential weakness would be Harden and Paul’s inexperience sharing the court in close games. The point was proved moot at least for a moment on Saturday night, as Houston completed a come-from-behind victory after withstanding a 35-point offensive onslaught from Damian Lillard. Harden scored 15 of the Rockets’ 40 points in the fourth quarter to complete the comeback. He would finish with 48. Nearly lost in the shadow of Harden’s brilliant performance was Paul’s 26 point outing.

Takeaways

  • Open looks: One of the biggest positives to Paul’s return to the lineup has been his effect on Anderson’s shooting percentage. In 16 games played without Paul, Anderson shot .376 from the field. In the 9 games they’ve shared the court, Anderson’s percentage is almost 50% (.498).

  • Working on both sides: To no one’s surprise, the Rockets are currently ranked second in the league in points per game. It was stated early in the season, however, that improving on defense was a priority if they were to make a deeper run in the playoffs. To say they’ve improved is an understatement. Having ended last season as the 18th ranked team defensively, the Rockets head into the 2nd third of the season currently ranked 8th in points allowed.

  • With Paul settling into his typical elite distributor role, Harden was overtaken by Russell Westbrook as the league’s assist leader this week. If it’s any consolation, Harden still league in points, averaging 32.3 per game at an unreal 46% shooting percentage.

Looking ahead

The Rockets have a full plate of home cooking this week as they host the Pelicans on Monday, the Hornets on Wednesday, the Spurs on Friday, and the Bucks on Saturday. The Pelicans sport one of the nastiest frontcourts in the NBA with superstars Demarcus Cousins and Anthony Davis, but they’ve been unable to maintain any consistency. The Hornets will have a chance to avenge the 109-93 blowout suffered earlier in the season, but at 9-16 on the season, I don’t envision them capitalizing on the opportunity. Friday the Rockets will get their first look at the Spurs this season, as they welcome back Kawhi Leonard from injury. At 19-8, the Spurs represent the biggest test for the Rockets since Nov. 9 versus the Cavs. Finally, the Rockets host the Bucks and one of my favorite players in the league, Giannis Antetokounmpo. The Bucks are 15-10, but they could prove to be a sneaky difficult contest now that they’re finally healthy. From the looks of it, I would assume that the Rockets win streak ends sometime toward the end of next week, adding at least two more wins in the interim.

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The clock is ticking. Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

If he is indeed to become an ex-Astro George Springer can officially sign with his new team starting at four PM Houston time this Sunday. Michael Brantley the same. All free agents can sign contracts starting Sunday afternoon. If the die isn't cast that Springer is leaving, it certainly feels like his renewing vows with the Astros would be an upset.

The Astros will make Springer a 18.9 million dollar qualifying offer for 2021. He will of course reject that because contract offers of at least five years and over 100 million dollars likely await. Should Springer move on the Astros would then get a compensatory draft pick. Brantley won't get anything in close range of Springer's haul-to-be but still should at least get multiyear offers. The Astros should make the qualifying offer to Brantley (if they don't they forfeit any compensation for his departure). If they don't out of fear that he'd accept the one-year deal, the Astros would look lame. I don't think it comes to that. Losing Springer would be a huge blow on multiple levels, but if somehow they were to keep Brantley while getting back Yordan Alvarez at even 80 percent of his rookie performance level the Astros' lineup would look to be in decent shape.

With MLB's economic outlook shaky for 2021, it's unreasonable to say Jim Crane and his partners should give Springer whatever he wants. A six or seven year megadollar contract for a 31-year-old player with some durability questions on his resume is an iffy proposition. At the same time, the Astros have been quite profitable in recent years (before 2020), and Crane said over the summer the Astros were positioned to be "aggressive, whatever the market looks like." 13 million Josh Reddick dollars are off the books for 2021, 10 mil of Roberto Osuna is gone. After next year more than 57 mil of Justin Verlander and Zack Greinke clear.

MLB's postseason awards will be doled out over the next couple weeks but for the first time in years the Astros don't have a credible candidate for any of the big ones (MVP, Cy Young, Rookie of the Year, Manager of the Year). The Astros do have three American League Gold Glove finalists. I think Carlos Correa wins the shortstop honor. Correa had a weak regular season at the plate but his defense was stellar, plus the two guys who divvied up the last four AL SS Gold Gloves (Francisco Lindor and Andrelton Simmons) had down seasons and aren't finalists. Quick: name the teams of fellow finalists J.P. Crawford and Niko Goodrum. Hard to see either winning over Correa. Yuli Gurriel and Kyle Tucker were also named top three at their positions. For the first time the finalist selections were driven entirely by stats and analytics.

Big week for the Rockets

With the Rockets settling on Stephen Silas as their new Head Coach, that hire coupled with the in house promotion of Rafael Stone to General Manager makes it appear as though owner Tilman Fertitta is doing more things on the cheap. The NBA economic environment is challenging and huge portions of the rest of Fertitta's portfolio are submerged in a COVID-driven bloodbath. Silas has paid his dues for a good while and most recently worked under the outstanding Rick Carlisle in Dallas. He has earned a lead chair opportunity. But with no prior head coaching experience and no bidding war for his services, Silas signs on at a much lower rate than, say, Jeff Van Gundy would have commanded. Former head coaches (and former Rockets' player rivals of the 90s) Jeff Hornacek and Nate McMillan would make for two strong Silas assistants. From their playing days if you combined Hornacek's offense and McMillan's defense into one player you'd have one of the top 20 or so greatest guards in NBA history.

Silas and Stone take the reins at a challenging time for the Rockets with their messy salary cap sheet, reduced draft capital, and one of the oldest core player groups in the league. Polite public statements aside, it's part of why Daryl Morey left. Maybe Mike D'Antoni too though that seemed more about feeling disrespected by the lack of a contract extension before this past season. D'Antoni may have overplayed his hand since he did not get fill any of the coaching vacancies elsewhere in the NBA. Only Oklahoma City remains open, and D'Antoni has gotten no run there.

Buzzer Beaters:

1. It seems sadly appropriate that the first meaningful positive in the Texans' 2020 season came in form of a COVID test result.

2. If we all commit to getting through it together, I think we can get by without a Texans' game this weekend. Remember, it's their open week, not a bye!

3. One hit wonder goodbye songs: Bronze-Terry Jacks "Seasons in the Sun" Silver-Norman Greenbaum "Spirit In The Sky" Gold-Steam "Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye"

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