Some important things to consider with the Rockets returning to action

Composite image by Jack Brame.

As the shortened season gets closer, more questions need to be answered. How will Russell Westbrook and James Harden overcome their postseason doubts? What type of defensive structure does Luc Mbah a Moute bring back to the Rockets?

In the last three years, Westbrook has struggled to get past the first round. His first season without Kevin Durant in Oklahoma City was understandable. Westbrook went against a similar built team in the 2017 postseason, the Houston Rockets. In his MVP season, Westbrook and the Thunder were booted out of the playoffs in five games. Later that offseason, Westbrook recruited Carmelo Anthony and Paul George to OKC. This tandem struggled against the Utah Jazz in the 2018 playoffs. As again, Westbrook was out the first round.

That caused Anthony to get traded to Atlanta after the season was over. When George decided to stay in OKC for another season, things looked different for the Thunder. They were able to grab decent seeding but had to face the Portland Trail Blazers in the first round. People predicted Westbrook and George would overcome this Blazers team. But Damian Lillard said different in game six as he hit a buzzer beater to send the Thunder home in the first round.

This year's Rockets team averaged 118.1 points per game before the season was cut short because of COVID-19, Westbrook was averaging 27.5 points per game. Westbrook was on a tear before the season ended but will things be different for him in the playoffs?

Harden has heard all the criticism from previous playoffs series dating back to OKC. His biggest downfall in the playoffs was against the Golden State Warriors. Harden has lost to the Warriors four times. His last two playoff appearances against the Warriors were tough losses. In the 2018 playoffs, Chris Paul reinjured his hamstring in game five, but the Rockets went up 3-2 in the series. Harden and the Rockets missed 22 straight from behind the arc in game seven causing them to lose. The following year, the Rockets lost again to Warriors in six games. This time, without Kevin Durant because he got hurt in game five. Harden was just not able to get along with Paul in the most important series.

Before this season started, the last time Westbrook and Harden played together, was the 2011-2012 season. As that Thunder team blew through teams in the playoffs, and made it to the 2012 NBA finals. Harden and Westbrook both struggled in the finals. Westbrook averaged 27 points per game, while Harden averaged 12.4 points per game. While Harden struggled with turnovers, Westbrook struggled with shooting making only 3 shots from behind the arc on 22 attempts. As result, the Miami Heat beat the Thunder in five games.

How can things be different for Harden? Honestly, Westbrook gives Harden a slight push to become even better. Westbrook and Harden started off slow playing together in the beginning of the season. But towards the shutdown, Westbrook started to build chemistry with Harden. The Rockets went 9-2 in the month of February. Both players shared the ball amazingly well. Harden and Westbrook combined for five 40-point games in the month. Hopefully, we see this level of play in the playoffs.

During the press conference Saturday, Coach Mike D'Antoni expressed his optimism about Harden and Westbrook playing together. D'Antoni feels excited because they proved it by beating the tougher teams in the league.

"Defensively we've been good, offensively we're the second-best in the league this year," D'Antoni said. "We demonstrated that against the best teams in the league, which obliviously they're all here, we played really well. We are not going to take a backseat to anybody. We think we can win it."

Now that the Rockets re-signed Luc Mbah a Moute, this brings strong presence back on defense. The reason for bringing his back is that Thabo Sefolosha did not feel comfortable being in Orlando. Ever since the 2017-2018 season, the Rockets defense has not been the same. Trevor Ariza was on the Rockets as well that year, but bringing back Luc from that team, was huge. The Rockets will likely have to guard multiple players from the Los Angeles Lakers or Clippers in the playoffs this year. The Rockets are currently ranked 9th in defensive this season. It could change now that Luc is back.

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Houston's losing streak extended to five games

With key Astros missing, Detroit completes the series sweep

An overall bad day for the Astros on Wednesday. Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

On Wednesday afternoon, the Astros received a big blow to their chances in the series finale against Detroit and potentially longer. Five players: Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman, Yordan Alvarez, Martin Maldonado, and Robel Garcia would all be moved to the IL due to health and safety protocols, leaving them scrambling to get a whole team together for the game against the Tigers.

The Astros would not be able to overcome both the loss of players and the onslaught of another strong start by Detroit in Wednesday's game which put them too far out front for Houston to come back from to avoid a series sweep.

Final Score: Tigers 6, Astros 4

Astros' Record: 6-6, third in the AL West

Winning Pitcher: Michael Fulmer (1-0)

Losing Pitcher: Lance McCullers Jr. (1-1)

Tigers knock out another starter early

Detroit continued their success of making Houston's starter work hard in early innings, getting after Lance McCullers Jr., and giving him an early exit. After a lengthy fist, they broke through in the second getting two hits, a walk, a hit batter, and an RBI groundout to put up three runs on 34 pitches.

He would have a quicker 1-2-3 third, but after giving up a single, a walk, and hitting another batter to load the bases and reach 87 pitches, he would be removed in favor of Joe Smith. Smith would allow all three of the inherited runners to score, adding those runs to McCullers Jr.'s final line: 3.2 IP, 4 H, 6 R, 6 ER, 3 BB, 3 K, 87 P.

Astros try to claw back into it

After Smith would go on to load the bases again in the inning, still with two outs, Houston made another pitching change to bring in Brandon Bielak to get the third out and stop the bleeding at 6-0. The Astros would get on the board in the fifth, getting a runner on base to set up a two-run homer by Jason Castro to cut the lead to 6-2.

Bielak remained in the game to try and eat up as many innings as possible. While he continued to hold the Tigers to their six runs through the six innings, the Astros clawed back into the game. In the bottom of the sixth, Houston put their first two batters on base with a walk and single before an RBI-single by Yuli Gurriel to make it 6-3. They would threaten for more but be held there for the time being.

Astros can't cash in, Tigers complete sweep

Ryne Stanek was Houston's next reliever in the top of the seventh, getting a 1-2-3 frame to keep it a three-run game, as did Brooks Raley in the eighth. In the home part of the inning, the Astros put their first two runners on base on an error and a walk, then loaded them with a one-out single by Carlos Correa. They'd waste their chance to make something happen, though, with an inning-ending double-play.

Ryan Pressly, who had no save opportunities in recent games, entered to get some work in the top of the ninth. He worked around a leadoff double for a scoreless inning, sending the 6-3 game to the bottom of the ninth. The Astros had yet another chance to make something happen, loading the bases with no outs to bring the go-ahead run to the plate. After two outs, Yuli Gurriel would bring one run in with a walk, but that's as close as they'd come, extending their losing streak to five games and getting swept by the Tigers.

Up Next: Houston will get a much-needed day off tomorrow to try and leave this poor homestand behind them. They'll pick things up in Seattle on Friday, with first pitch of the opener of three games at 9:10 PM Central. The expected pitching matchup is Jose Urquidy (0-1, 5.23 ERA) for the Astros and Yusei Kikuchi (0-0, 3.75 ERA) for the Mariners.

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