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State of the Rockets: Robert Covington's IQ, Russell Westbrook shooting threes again, and more

Rockets' advanced stats (per cleaningtheglass.com)

As of last week:

Offensive RTG: 113.5 (5th)

Defensive RTG: 110.1 (15th)

Net RTG: +3.4 (10th)

As of this week:

Offensive RTG: 114.0 (3rd)

Defensive RTG: 110.0 (15th)

Net RTG: +4.0 (7th)

Biggest developments:

1. Rockets sign DeMarre Carroll and Jeff Green on the buyout market

Compared to the other players that were out there (namely Marvin Williams and Markieff Morris), DeMarre Carroll and Jeff Green are probably on the middle end of the spectrum of buyout players. At this point, it's unclear if either of these players will secure a rotation spot come playoff time. One would think Carroll would be the obvious candidate for a spot considering he's probably been the better NBA player for his career, but it seems the Rockets really want to give Green a serious look at backup center. Green's athleticism makes him an obvious lob threat, but inconsistent offensive play and defensive liabilities have plagued him throughout his career.

I suppose if he were to become a productive player in the NBA, it would be at center. You don't have to be a knockdown shooter and if you're going to switch everything like the Rockets, you don't have to be a great rim protector. Still, selling yourself on Jeff Green is something you should do at your own risk. He is on a ten-day contract so there's no risk in Houston getting a look at him for a few games to see if they like the fit.

It will be interesting to see if Carroll can crack what has turned out to be a crowded wing rotation. Between Harden, Covington, Gordon, House, and, McLemore, there's just not a lot of minutes to go around. It's possible Carroll is on the roster to be break-in-case-of-emergency kind of guy considering injuries are unpredictable and the Rockets may need veterans to help fill a role in a pinch.

2. Holy crap, Robert Covington is good

There was never really a question whether Robert Covington would provide value to Houston when they traded for him at the deadline. The question was always whether or not that value would be worth moving on from Clint Capela and Houston's 2020 first round pick. So far, he's been brilliant.

Houston Rockets without Robert Covington:

Offensive RTG: 105.7

Defensive RTG: 122.3

Net RTG: -16.5

Houston Rockets with Robert Covington:

Offensive RTG: 118.2

Defensive RTG: 102.5

Net RTG: +15.7

Defensively, he's incredibly intelligent and it kind of feels like he's been in a box until he got to Houston. What I mean by that is the teams that had Covington played him primarily at small forward and didn't switch nearly as much as the Rockets like to. Don't get me wrong, this is a perfectly fine role for Covington as he's a very good on-ball defender, but you're blanketing one of his greatest strengths. Covington's ability to be a weak-side shot blocker on big men is an asset that's always been there, but it's highlighted with Houston because of the positions they put him in.

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It was tempting to just post one of the three blocks he had on Rudy Gobert on Saturday, but I felt the content was too graphic to post. I have a responsibility to my readers, so I had to make an executive decision. What Covington did to Gobert on Saturday night was just bullying. There's no other way to describe it.

There's also his offense, which, while understated, is still an asset. Covington's three-point shooting stroke is so natural and effortless, it's kind of insulting that he wasn't taking over seven threes a game until he returned to the Rockets. His percentage may be around league average (35.8%), but his willingness to any and all open looks is a something Houston was only getting previously with Ben McLemore.

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It's completely ridiculous that Covington took and made this shot considering how low he caught it and how close the defender was already.

3. Russell Westbrook is shooting threes again

Does anybody remember that five game stretch where Russell Westbrook only attempted two three-pointers and it seemed like he was going to stop shooting them? Well, there's a possibility that people may have jumped the gun there. Over his last six games, Westbrook has attempted 16 three-pointers, almost three times more than the amount he took in the six games prior to this stretch. Now, 16 three-pointers over six games isn't a lot (2.7 per game), but it's possible that he's starting to regain confidence in that shot and will begin taking them at high volume again. He took four against the Jazz, the most he's taken since February 2nd.

There's not a large enough sample size to suggest that Westbrook is just going to start chucking three-pointers again, but it's definitely something to monitor. The Rockets seem to be much more effective when Westbrook is driving in open space and opting for mid-range jumpers as opposed to the threes. He's also become a once-in-a-while lob threat for James Harden when defenders sag off of him in the corners.

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Week of games in review:

Going into the All-Star break, the biggest question for the Rockets was whether or not they'd be able to grab a top seed in the West by making a strong run to close the season. Houston has developed a reputation for closing seasons out much better than how they started them. Last season, the Rockets went 21-7 in their last 28 games with the second best Net Rating in the NBA (+10.4) and were able to grab the 4th seed after being as low as 14th during the season.

If they're going to make a run, this week was about as strong a start as you're going to get. The Golden State win was dominant buzzer to buzzer, which is something to the Rockets have struggled to do all season - bludgeon bad teams. They've beat bad teams, but a true sign of a title contender is having the ability to make it a no-contest by the fourth quarter, which this was. The Utah win was impressive in that it adds to the list of very good teams Houston has been able to beat since they went to micro-ball (Los Angeles, Boston, Utah, etc...). This win also hammered home what we've kind of known for years: Rudy Gobert and the Jazz still don't have any answer against the Rockets' offense in open space, making them close to non-threat to Houston in a competitive playoff series.

They currently sit at the fourth seed with roughly the same win percentage they had last season, so there's an opportunity to approach the high 50-win team mark if they're persistent.

Questions for the coming week:

1. Can Houston keep up this defensive intensity?

Defending at a high level without at least one traditional center is tough and it requires a lot of team effort and little margin for error. Houston's point-of-attack defense has to be strong as they're isn't a seven-footer at the rim to deter or alter shots if they screw up. There are points where the Rockets don't seem to have it and it becomes a layup drill for opposing teams - the first half against the Jazz being a great example of this. They can only have one bad quarter a game if they want to be a top-ten defense by season's end.

Over their last three games, the Rockets have a stellar defensive rating of 104.3, good for fourth in the NBA. Their ability to carry this momentum through the rest of the season is going to tell us a lot about their viability in the playoffs.

2. Is Jeff Green the full-time backup center?

As stated earlier, the Rockets are making a concerted effort to get a look at Jeff Green as the full-time backup to P.J. Tucker, but there may be competition at that spot, particularly from the person who last occupied that spot in Thabo Sefolosha. Sefolosha is older and not as athletic, but he's shown the ability to always be in the right positions defensively and make less mistakes than Jeff Green. It looked like he'd found a comfort level at the backup center spot too.

It's possible that Sefolosha's just fallen out of the lineup, but I would not be surprised if he made a return soon. Green has to play really well during this home stretch to secure a rest-of-the-season contract with Houston.

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This week the NASCAR cup series heads to the world center of racing, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, for the inaugural fourth of July version of the Brickyard 400. This is unprecedented for NASCAR considering over the course of 50 years they are usually in Daytona around this time. While this move was met with a lot of criticism from fans, there is a positive to come from this move though, as the sport will hold their first doubleheader with Indycar. This has been talked about for many years and now it has finally come to fruition. Another new facet of this weekend will be the Xfinity Series running on the road course configuration. This could very well lead to the cup series transitioning from the oval to the road course next season should everything go well when the Xfinity series does it. It will definitely be an interesting weekend.

Last week, Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin dominated the first-ever doubleheader at Pocono. The two drivers finished first and second in both races with Harvick taking race one and Hamlin winning race two. Both of these races came down to pit-road strategy as Harvick was able to eke out a victory by taking two tires and fuel while his teammate Aric Almirola took four. The next day Denny Hamlin pretty much had the whole field covered as he went on to claim his fourth victory of the season. Overall, the idea of two races in a weekend went over well but for the racing itself, it was hard to watch. One of the main issues I had was how the drivers didn't have to shift this week. In my opinion, that was what made this track so unique. It was an oval that had road course characteristics and it usually produced some pretty good finishes. Hopefully this will be addressed when the new car makes its debut in 2022.

One of the big stories going into this week is the announcement a couple of weeks ago that NASCAR will be moving their all-star event to Bristol Motor Speedway. Over the past couple of weeks, there has been a whirlwind of news from the Bubba Wallace story at Talladega, to the doubleheader races last week. A lot of this has put this announcement on the back burner but this is a huge story. The race will be held on Wednesday, July 15th as NASCAR continues with midweek races. This is the first time since 1986 that the race will not be run at NASCAR's home track in Charlotte back when it took place at Atlanta Motor Speedway. The format will be pretty much the same as all the winners from 2019 and 2020 will all have an automatic birth into the race while the rest of the field will run in the open event the day before. The main event will feature four stages including a 15 lap closer around one of NASCAR's most popular race tracks. I think this move was long overdue and I hope that they continue with it in the future. Don't get me wrong, there isn't anything wrong with the race at Charlotte but I think a change of pace would be welcomed. I look forward to seeing how this turns out.

As we move on to Indy this weekend, the driver I have winning is Kurt Busch. This weekend will be the 2004 Cup Series champion's 700th career start, and he's won just about every race that there is to be won except this one here at the Brickyard. This week, that is going to change. It hasn't been the most consistent season for the Vegas native, but he still sits tenth in points and right in the thick of the playoff battle. This track isn't his best as he currently has a 19.42 average finish, including a dismal 30th place finish last year. But this week, I think he gets back on track with a victory as he starts second. The veteran has flown under the radar this year, but he has definitely shown spurts where we think he is going to break-out. He also has runs where it seems like him and his team are mid-pack, but there aren't many drivers out there that have the experience he has. And a talented driver like him always finds a way to bounce back. Look for Kurt Busch to take the #1 Monster Energy Camaro to victory lane.

All stats and information used in this article are brought to you by the good folks at driveraverages.com and Racing-Reference.com, the best websites for all NASCAR stats.

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