The Rockets Report

Rough week for Rockets as injuries contribute to three-game losing streak

Chris Paul was injured against the Lakers. Houston Rockets/Facebook

After going undefeated since a week before Thanksgiving, The Rockets white hot run finally came to an end last week. After a fourth quarter outburst secured the victory against Utah, the Rockets have since dropped three in a row - their longest losing streak of the season.

The Rockets are now second in both the conference and the league, with Golden State holding a one game lead.

Game 29: Rockets vs Utah Jazz (W, 120-99)

The final score is about as misleading as it gets. James Harden and company were in a dogfight from tip off until 8 minutes remained in the fourth. That’s when the Rockets--fueled mainly behind the shooting of Eric Gordon--ignited and scorched the Jazz for a 41-15 fourth quarter to seal the victory. Gordon led the team with 33 points, 17 of which were scored in the fourth quarter alone. Clint Capela ended the game with 24 points and 20 rebounds, and Chris Paul added 18 points, 10 assists and 9 rebounds. A stat correction the following day would end up removing a rebound from Capela and awarding it to Paul, which would register as his first triple-double of the season. Harden would finish with 26 points, 6 assists, and 6 rebounds.

Game 30: Rockets vs LA Lakers (L, 122-116)

The LA Lakers in Houston arrived as severe underdogs after almost stealing a game from Golden State the night before. The heartbreaking loss must have emboldened them, as they erupted out of the gate. The Lakers controlled the game for the entire first half, leading by as much as 22 at one point. The Rockets would chip away, though turning the entire third quarter into a slug fest. Sloppy defense and a career night from Lakers rookie Kyle Kuzma would prove too much to overcome for Houston, despite a 51 point, 9 assist performance from Harden. Gordon would provide the only other 20-plus point performance for the Rockets, adding 21 of his own. Paul had 8 points, 5 rebounds, and 5 assists before leaving late in the fourth with what would eventually be diagnosed as a left abductor strain.

Game 31: Rockets vs LA Clippers (L, 128-118)

Looking to rebound from their first loss in December, the Rockets jumped out ahead of the Clippers early. Houston would hold on to a steady lead until midway through the third when Austin Rivers tied the game after a 12-point outburst. The Clippers would take the lead and hold on for the win despite a late fourth quarter surge from Houston. Rivers would finish with a career-high 36 points for the Clippers, while Harden recorded his second straight 51-point game. Gordon added 28 points as well.

Game 32: Rockets vs Oklahoma City Thunder (L, 112-107)

With 14 lead changes and neither lead climbing higher than 8 points, this primetime Christmas Day matchup certainly did not disappoint. After a close game throughout, both teams entered the fourth quarter tied at 88. It was OKC’s third ranked defense that would prove to be the deciding factor in the end, as a string of well timed steals and blocks in the final two minutes would seal the Rockets fate. Russell Westbrook finished with 31 points, 11 assists, and 6 rebounds. Paul George and Carmelo Anthony would follow with 24 and 20 points respectively. Harden finished with 29 points 14 assists and 8 rebounds, and Trevor Ariza and Gordon each chipped in 20 as well.

Takeaways

The back to back 50 point games were historic. The last player to record back to back 50 point games was Kobe Bryant in 2007. The last time a player scored 51 points to go with 8 or more assists? According to basketball-reference.com, James Harden is the only person to do it since 1983-1984.

At 32 straight games with 20 or more points (and counting), Harden is ranks among the greats. The only other players that have stretched out a start like this are Wilt Chamberlain, Lebron James, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

Two of the losses this week came with Capela on the bench, thus proving just how valuable he’s proven to be to the Rockets this season. His rebounding was expected, but this season his defensive improvement and ability to find soft spots in the defense while teams trap perimeter scorers has been key to the Rockets meteoric start.

Looking Ahead:

The Rockets road doesn’t get much easier for the remainder of the week, with back to back away games against the Boston Celtics and Washington Wizards, followed by a home game Sunday against the Lakers. Both the Celtics and Wizards are playoff bound teams with dynamic, difficult backcourt assignments. The Lakers are still a sub .500 team despite their win last Wednesday. Chris Paul should return to the lineup Thursday in Boston, and they’ll need all hands on deck. I expect the Rockets to shake off the current losing streak, taking two out of three heading into the new year.

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Willson Contreras could give the Astros some extra pop in the lineup. Composite image by Brandon Strange.

“The Hot Stove League” is the nickname given to Major League Baseball's offseason. In particular, the free agent signing period in late November/early December. Trades are also made during this period. Now that Astros' owner Jim Crane has ousted all opposition to his idea of how things should be run, he's free to do things the way he sees fit.

He opened it by not hiring a general manager to replace James Click. Instead, he opted for a committee of assistant GMs. Those guys are assisted by some special advisors, like former Astros great Jeff Bagwell. Crane likes and wants to take a big swing at things. He'd probably hit about .250 with 30-plus home runs every season. Can't leave out his guaranteed 80-100 strikeouts. Typical power hitter. It's all or nothing, except Crane has been making great contact and knocking some things out of the park.

Signing Jose Abreu was an example. Yuli Gurriel looked as if he was losing the battle with “Father Time” during the regular season. This was an insurance policy at first, and designated hitter. Another prime example is their reported interest in C/DH/LF Willson Contreras. His bat would be a major upgrade over past Astro catchers. Although Martin Maldonado may not be going anywhere, having a quality bat to relieve him is key. Add the fact that he plays some outfield, and he's almost a “two birds with one stone” type of signing.

Abreu may be 35 years old, but he's coming off a year hitting .304 with 15 home runs. Contreras may be the younger of the two at 30, but his .243 average hurts the fact that he hit 22 home runs. Both sport an OPS above .800 for their careers. Bagwell said he wants Yordan Alvarez to play left field 45% of the time. The other 55% can be Contreras, Chas McCormick (assuming Jake Meyers is still in the mix for center field), and whoever else they sign or bring up from Sugar Land. When Contreras isn't in left, he needs to be behind the plate or hitting DH. I'd really love the idea of him sitting under Maldonado's learning tree for a year and taking over catcher long-term. Not many can be the catcher "Machete" is, but hitting 50 points better than him has its advantages.

Then there's the reported interest other teams have in Justin Verlander. Supposedly, the Mets have met with him via Zoom. The Dodgers are interested and are seemingly the leaders in the clubhouse to sign him. However, I wouldn't count Crane and crew out. He may come to JV last minute and offer him something comparable in order to keep him around. He strikes me as the type of guy who'll keep his plays close to the vest, then make a Godfather type of offer. He negotiated Verlander's last deal with the team himself. Coming off a World Series win, Cy Young win, and opting out of said deal, Verlander is most likely looking to get one final payday that'll also land him on a contender.

Having a winner is one thing. Having a winner committed to winning long-term is another. Crane wants to strike while the iron is hot. Sure, he wants his franchise to be sustainable. But he also wants to keep the World Series window open as long as possible. Kyle Tucker's next deal will be one to watch. Having an embarrassment of riches on the pitching staff means you have trade bait. Keep an eye on old Jimmy Crane. I think he might be the best thing to hit Houston sports in quite some time.

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