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State of the Rockets: Rockets waive Gary Clark, Ben McLemore joins starting unit, and more

Rockets' advanced stats (per cleaningtheglass.com):

As of last week:

Offensive RTG: 114.1 (3rd)

Defensive RTG: 109.2 (17th)

Net RTG: +4.9 (7th)

As of this week:

Offensive RTG: 113.8 (3rd)

Defensive RTG: 108.7 (15th)

Net RTG: +5.1 (6th)

Biggest developments:

1. Rockets waive second-year forward Gary Clark

January 7th was the final day before Gary Clark's contract became fully-guaranteed and he was waived shortly before that could happen. The logical conclusion to draw from this is that after months of speculation, the Rockets have indeed left themselves a window to get under the luxury tax and this year's trade deadline again. Clark wasn't a world-beater, but it would have only cost Houston breathing room from the luxury tax to keep him. Although Rockets' GM Daryl Morey was "given the green light" to pay the luxury tax this summer by owner Tilman Fertitta, he also made these comments before acquiring guard Russell Westbrook, which made it harder for Houston to dodge the repeater tax if they were to become a tax team this year

Now, to be completely fair, it doesn't look like the Rockets will lose any sleep over Gary Clark and they've now left themselves an open roster spot for buyout candidates later this month or in February. Per 36 minutes, Clark was averaging 11.9 points, 6.8 rebounds, 1.5 blocks, 0.3 steals and was shooting 35.3% from three-point range. Clark possessed good length and had his moments defensively, but the prospect of him becoming a key NBA rotation player was shaky at best. This wasn't great optics, but it probably won't come back to bite the Rockets.

2. Mike D'Antoni moves Ben McLemore to the started lineup and Danuel House to the bench

To say that Danuel House has been in a slump would be putting it generously. Over his last five games, House has been averaging 5.4 points per game, 3.4 rebounds per game, 1.2 assists per game, and 0.4 steals per game on 48.6% true shooting. House has been bad and it's unknown why he's struggling after coming out of the gates hot this season (averaged 12.5 points, 4.2 rebounds, 1.2 assists, and 1.5 steals on 66.1% true shooting in November).

However, starting a 6'5" Ben McLemore at small forward alongside 6'5" P.J. Tucker at power forward is still a bold decision. The Rockets believe this will free up more minutes for Austin Rivers at backup point guard as it allows them to cleanly play Eric Gordon and Rivers at the backup guard positions. This also allows Tucker, who'd been averaging a career high 35 minutes per game to this point, to get some rest with House backing him up at backup power forward. The indecisiveness at starting small forward does indicate one thing though - the Rockets need wing help and they need it badly. They've now alternated between James Ennis, Eric Gordon, Danuel House, and Ben McLemore at starting small forward over the past two years.

This may be a decent temporary solution, but long-term, Houston needs more duct tape at the forward spots. For what it's worth, McLemore has played really well with the starting unit.

3. P.J. Tucker's shooting slump continues

One of the underrated storylines for the Rockets this past month has been P.J. Tucker's shooting slump. Over his last 9 games, Tucker has shot a measly 12.5% from three-point range on 2.7 attempts per game. Before the slump, Tucker was a near-40% three-point shooter and his slump has really damaged the Rockets offense (down 0.3 points per 100 possessions from last week alone). The Rockets like to play with a spaced floor and Tucker's emergence as an elite three-point shooter has been one of the reasons they've been able to make defenses pay for doubling James Harden.

Now, Tucker will almost assuredly bounce back from this based on his Houston three-point percentages (37.4%). However, it is definitely something to monitor going forward, especially with the recent injury to Tucker's shoulder suffered against Minnesota.

Week of games in review:

This was a weird week for the Rockets as they've had just about every kind of game on the spectrum. They had a bad loss in Oklahoma City, a mediocre victory against the Atlanta Hawks on the road, and an impressive blowout victory against the Timberwolves in Houston. On the whole, this week tracked with their season long theme - good with room for improvement.

It's consistency that's really plagued the Rockets. For example, in Atlanta they came out to a 45-29 lead where they looked as dominant as ever before fumbling the rest of the game and escaping with a narrow 122-115 victory. When they get large leads, they've struggled to put teams away - a hallmark of true tier one championship contenders. However, it is encouraging that their defense is starting to get better (up 0.5 points per 100 possessions from last week).

Questions for the coming week:

1. How do the Rockets match up with the class of the West on Saturday?

Saturday is as big of game as the Rockets are going to play all season. Through 40 games, the Lakers are clearly the gold standard of the Western Conference (33-7 with a net rating of +8.2). There are so many important questions to be answered here:

a) Do the Rockets have enough quality defenders to throw at LeBron James?

b) How does Houston handle the size discrepancy in dealing with the Lakers' fairly big front court?

c) Can the Rockets score consistently enough against one of the best defenses in the NBA (4th per cleaningtheglass.com)

P.J. Tucker will obviously handle the initial assignment on LeBron James, but how the secondary defenders handle mismatches and crossmatches against James is something to watch for. How a defense like Los Angeles defends James Harden will also give some important insight for a possible playoff matchup between the two teams. For the most part, this is a completely new matchup as the two teams have not faced each other in their new iterations. How all these questions get answered will be fascinating.

2) How does Houston look defensively with Ben McLemore in the starting lineup?

Offensively, the Rockets should hum with Ben McLemore in the starting unit as McLemore offers a spacing element that was starting to get lost with Danuel House. However, it's defensively that'll be the most interesting quandary for Houston. McLemore, to his credit, gives a lot of effort when defending on-the-ball. It's off the ball where his issues lay as McLemore gets beat on back cuts fairly easily and can get lost in Houston's scheme. You can survive one, maybe even two sub-par defenders in the starting unit, but three sounds like it could be a breaking point that opposing defenses can exploit. This is something the Rockets will need to think about when evaluating this unit now as it could become a concern come playoff time.

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Yordan Alvarez provided the offense to back up more stellar pitching by the Astros as they took ALCS game 6 to advance to the 2021 World Series. Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

After splitting the first two games of this series in Houston then falling behind in the series 2-1 by dropping the first of three games in Boston, the Astros took over the ALCS in Games 4 and 5, sending them back to their home crowd with a chance to finish things off in Game 6 at Minute Maid Park. After another stellar performance by their pitching staff and more timely hitting, they would accomplish that mission, winning the series and moving on to the 2021 World Series.

Final Score: Astros 5, Red Sox 0

ALCS Series (Best of Seven): Houston wins 4-2

Winning Pitcher: Luis Garcia

Losing Pitcher: Nathan Eovaldi

Houston strikes first to start tightly-contested Game 6

After a scoreless top of the first inning by Boston's offense, the Astros capitalized on a chance to be first to score in the bottom of the frame. Alex Bregman started the two-out rally, reaching base on a single against Nathan Eovaldi for the first hit of the night. Yordan Alvarez followed, delivering his sixth RBI of the series with a double to put Houston on top 1-0.

That did not spark further immediate scoring, as the one-run score held while both starting pitchers provided solid outings for their team. For Eovaldi, he was able to limit Houston to just that single run through four frames. He returned in the bottom of the fifth, facing two batters, allowing a single, and getting a strikeout to end his night.

Garcia impresses in big start

For the home team, they were recipients of another expectation-exceeding performance from one of their young arms. Only anticipated to go a handful of innings, Luis Garcia worked efficiently and effectively against Boston, keeping them scoreless and hitless through five innings. He continued in the sixth, getting two more outs before allowing a two-out triple, ending his night as Phil Maton would enter to strand the tying run. Garcia's final line: 5.2 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 1 BB, 7 K, 76 P.

With both teams dipping into their bullpens, the Astros took advantage of Boston's as Yordan Alvarez's dominance went on display once again. He led the inning off with a triple, then scored on a double-play ball to extend Houston's lead to 2-0. Kendall Graveman took over on the mound in the top of the seventh and worked himself into a big moment. He gave up a one-out walk, followed by a single, which put runners on the corners for Boston. He continued to struggle with the zone, falling behind the next batter 3-1, but was able to battle back to get the strikeout paired with a terrific throw by Martin Maldonado to cut down the runner from first trying to steal second, ending the inning and maintaining the two-run advantage.

Astros headed to the World Series

Ryne Stake was Houston's next reliever, and he put Houston three outs away by getting a 1-2-3 eighth. With Ryan Pressly warming, he watched and hoped that his offense could give him some more insurance to work with when he went to the mound in the top of the ninth. His wish would be granted, as after getting two on base, Kyle Tucker would put a major exclamation point on the night's offense, hitting a three-run opposite-field homer to the Crawford Boxes to push the lead to 5-0.

Pressly, now with the five-run lead, came on to try and start the celebration by getting the final three outs. Against the tougher part of Boston's order, he would get a 1-2-3 inning, giving the Astros the American League pennant, which along with those won in 2017 and 2019, puts them back in the World Series for the third time in five years.

Up Next: The Astros will have three days off before The Fall Classic kicks off. While Game 1 will be on Tuesday, October 26th, nothing else has yet been determined as Houston awaits to see which of the Dodgers and Braves will advance out of the NL, which will also dictate if the Astros will host or travel to World Series Game 1.

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