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.
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.
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.
With a new season on the horizon, the Astros have high hopes for 2024 after coming just one game shy of being in the World Series for three consecutive seasons.
If Houston wants to get back to the Fall Classic in 2024, they're going to have to rely on their pitching. Owner Jim Crane believes the club has 8 starting pitchers when Luis Garcia and Lance McCullers Jr. return mid-season.
Which allows several of the starters to move to the bullpen and provide even more depth. Add those guys to Bryan Abreu, Ryan Pressly, and Josh Hader and you have a recipe for success.
Check out the video above as ESPN Houston's Jeremy Branham goes through the entire staff and makes his case for the Astros having the best pitching staff in baseball.
You can listen to The Killer B's with Jeremy Branham and Joel Blank every weekday on ESPN 97.5 & 92.5 from 3 pm - 6 pm!