Welcome. Let's talk Rockets.

State of the Rockets: Eric Gordon's back, signature victories, and more

Introduction:

Hello, my name is Salman Ali and I cover the Houston Rockets. Most people reading probably already know this, but I feel like a proper introduction is in order. Every week, I go to the Toyota Center several times to cover Rockets' practices, games, and other miscellaneous team events. I notice things about the team and then proceed write about it, tweet about it, and even podcast about it.

However, I always feel I can do more, and that's what this is. Starting today, I will be writing a weekly column on the Rockets including random observations, pressing questions, general thoughts, and some statistics I can sprinkle in. I'm not quite sure how I'm going to go about this or even if there's going to be a specific format, but I guess that's what's fun about it. What I do know is that every Sunday there will be an article here on SportsMap about the Rockets.

So without further adieu, welcome to the very first 'State of the Rockets'.


Rockets' advanced stats (per cleaningtheglass.com):

Offensive RTG: 114.1 (3rd)

Defensive RTG: 109.2 (17th)

Net RTG: +4.9 (7th)


Biggest developments:

1. Eric Gordon's return to the rotation

Eric Gordon has returned the the rotation for the Rockets after receiving arthroscopy on his right knee in mid-November. The Rockets were careful in bringing Gordon back and originally placed him on a minutes restriction of 25 minutes per game, but that's now since bumped up to 30 minutes. As a whole, Gordon's played well since his return, scoring 14.7 points per game on 40.9 percent from beyond the three-point line.

The bigger story here is that the Rockets are fully healthy for the first time since the beginning of the season. It's hard not to be cautiously skeptical of the team's status as a tier one title contender this season, but Gordon is significant enough of a player to hold off on grandiose declarations about the team until he's become acclimated. Offensively, the Rockets were going to be awesome this season either way, but it's really the defense where Gordon has the potential to be a real game-changer. Without Chris Paul this season, the Rockets have not had a strong point-of-attack defense and Gordon provides Houston with someone other than Austin Rivers who can defend well on-ball.

Rockets Defensive RTG (last two games):

With Eric Gordon: 100.0

Without Eric Gordon: 109.6

The Rockets can also lower the load on players like James Harden and Russell Westbrook.

2. Isaiah Hartenstein temporarily secures backup center spot

According to head coach Mike D'Antoni himself, 21-year-old center Isaiah Hartenstein has secured the backup center spot in Houston's rotation "for now". This has the potential to be a big development for Houston as they've struggled to find consistent play behind Clint Capela for months now, and Hartenstein has played well enough to warrant that spot (14.1 points, 11.7 rebounds, and 1.3 blocks on 70.4% true shooting per 36 minutes). This also hopefully puts the bed the idea that Mike D'Antoni willfully ignores playing talented young players at every turn considering 3 of Houston's ten-man rotation is now under the age of 27 (House, Capela, and Hartenstein).

Of course, the caveat of all caveats here is "for now". The Rockets may try and acquire a big man at the trade deadline or the buyout market and if he's good enough, it may thwart Hartenstein out of the rotation again. Hartenstein could also struggle and therefore, lose his backup center spot to the veteran combo of Tyson Chandler and P.J. Tucker. Things are fluid here.


3. Rockets climb to third seed in Western Conference and tie for the second

With the Rockets winning five out of their last ten games and the Clippers going .500 in their last ten, Houston has jumped Los Angeles to obtain the third seed seed in the Western Conference. Denver also lost to Washington Saturday night which means the Rockets are also tied with them for the second seed. The Nuggets currently hold the conference tiebreaker over the Rockets, meaning they will keep the second seed for now.

While this isn't a major development as seeding is still very fluid in the West (the Rockets are also two games away from falling to the sixth seed), it's still noteworthy. The Rockets will likely battle with Los Angeles and Denver for seeding until the bitter end of the season, so the fact that they're already within striking distance of the second seed means they won't have to make a dramatic surge like they did last season. It also hammers home how must-win every game for the rest of the season will be considering how tightly bunched the conference is.

Week of games in review:

It's hard to hold the Pelicans loss against the Rockets, considering they were without the services of James Harden, Russell Westbrook, and Clint Capela. However, Houston did a pretty good job bouncing back by convincingly beating two title contenders in the Nuggets and 76ers in consecutive games. It's not so much that they beat the Nuggets and 76ers that's impressive, but more how they won them. The Rockets had a defensive rating of 106.0 in both games combined, which would be good for a top ten defense in the league.

This is really the origin of a lot of people's skepticism with the Rockets. Everybody knows the Rockets will have a top three offense when it's all said in done, but it's their defense that will elevate them to a level formidable enough to actually win a title. Thus far, they've been mediocre which only gets you a hard-fought, second round exit. If they can carry this good momentum into the rest of the season, it'll be a lot easier to buy more Rockets stock.

Something the Rockets can cling to is that they haven't been healthy enough to show their true colors. Eric Gordon missed 23 games, Danuel House missed 6 games, Clint Capela missed 6 games, Russell Westbrook missed 4 games, and even James Harden missed a game. One could reasonably argue that the injuries to Gordon, House, and Capela specifically have prevented them from reaching their heights as a defense. For now, we can only judge the Rockets on what they've been so far.

Questions for the coming week:

1. Can the Rockets sufficiently blowout the Atlanta Hawks and Minnesota Timberwolves buzzer-to-buzzer?

The truest of contenders blow teams like the Atlanta and Minnesota out of the water by halftime. The Rockets this season have been the model of inconsistency against below .500 teams. Sure, they've had some blowouts, but they've also let some truly bad teams hang around and even beat them in the month of December (Warriors, Kings, Cavaliers, and Suns). These games may not seem important, but they're resume builders and can help build good habits to carry over against good teams. They're also important fourth quarter rest opportunities for Houston's starters.

2. Will Russell Westbrook rest on the first or second night of the back-to-back?

The Rockets have a road back-to-back this week against the Hawks and Thunder. Mike D'Antoni has said that Houston's plan is to rest Russell Westbrook on one of the games during back-to-back sets and he's stuck to that plan. What's interesting is the Rockets have been opting to rest Westbrook on the second night, but this isn't a normal back-to-back. Russell Westbrook will be returning home against his former team, the Oklahoma City Thunder. This brings to question of whether or not they break the habit and allow Westbrook to play in Oklahoma City and properly say goodbye to the fans that have adored him for the past decade. The Thunder are also the clear, tougher matchup between the two, so it also makes sense from a basketball perspective to break the established norm.


Well, I hope you enjoyed the first one of these. See you next week.

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ROCKETS BEAT THUNDER

Rockets blast Thunder in home opener, 124-91

Rockets take care of business in home opener. Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images.

The Houston Rockets had an impressive outing versus the Oklahoma City Thunder after an embarrassing loss against the Minnesota Timberwolves Wednesday night. They took care of business at home on Friday night, which was a surprising blowout. The Rockets didn't have to worry about Karl-Anthony Towns screaming at Alperen Sengun or Anthony Edwards telling Coach Silas to call a timeout. Instead, they took their frustrations out on the Thunder (another younger core).

"We responded and bounced back from that game 1," Silas said. "I wouldn't say it was taking anything out. It was just learning and applying to what you learn and that's going to be us this year. Applying to what you learn and getting better and having some games like we had the other day. Veteran teams have some games when they don't play as well they want."

Christian Wood led the way, as he controlled the paint on all aspects with rebounding and putbacks. He played an incredible game after having a poor performance versus the Timberwolves. Silas showed complete trust in allowing Wood to open sets, as he walked the ball down the court several times, and in transition too. Wood became aggressive on the perimeter with open shooting and tough shots, and long strides towards the rim. He finished the night with 31 points and 13 rebounds off 66 percent shooting from the field.

The young core for the Thunder had a tough night defending Wood from every aspect. Hopefully, he keeps this play up. Silas loved the space that was created throughout the game for Wood, which included the help from Eric Gordon, as he continued to play better. Wood continues to develop underneath the Silas umbrella. He had a great feel for off-the-dribble shooting a few times. Wood becomes more dangerous when space is created on the court.

"It allows me to show what I can do. It allows the floor to be open and I can create for other guys and create for myself," Wood said.

As Gordon continues to impress, his teammate Kevin Porter Jr was amazed with his performance.

Gordon looked marvelous inside and outside of the paint, as it looked like a time ripple. The younger guards of the Thunder had a tough time staying in front of Gordon. His size and strength gave the Thunder a huge problem. Gordon is shooting the ball better too, as he is shooting the three-ball at 70 percent this season. Although it's a small sample size, Gordon is trying to overcome his shooting struggles from last year. Gordon finished with 22 points on 66 percent shooting versus the Thunder.

"EG is the biggest part of this squad," Porter said. He comes in and just scores. We need somebody off the bench to do that. He is our guy when me and J come out, it's EG time and he knows that, and comes in aggressive. So much energy on the bench, and we need that every night from him if we want a chance to win."

As I recently mentioned Porter, his facilitation did look better versus the Thunder than the Timberwolves. Porter had nine turnovers in his first game but managed to have two Friday night. He made great slip passes and found open teammates in the open corner. Porter forced a good number of passes versus the Timberwolves but looked more relaxed Friday night. The hardest position in the NBA is the point guard position, but Silas will not allow Porter to fail. Instead of nine turnovers, Porter dished out nine assists. Silas said:

"Bounce back right, going from nine turnovers to nine assists… I think he had two turnovers tonight, which is great. He is making plays for his teammates, and he was really focused."

Porter's shiftiness and creative ability allowed his teammates to get open looks near the rim. He had 18 points because of his step-back threes and first step going towards the basket. Thankfully, Porter is a great ball handler, which confuses defenders on different spots on the court. It's almost like watching a ballerina skate on ice in the Olympics. Hopefully, his confidence continues to get better throughout the year. Porter shot the three-ball at 50 percent tonight. Efficiency is key for Porter this year.

"I'm just trying to let the game slow down," Porter said. "I had a lot of turnovers last game and I just wanted to piggyback and learn from them and learn from some of my forced passes and reads. And sometimes I still force it a little bit. My guys hate that, and sometimes I'm still passive and I'm working on that. When to pass and score and bounce it out, and tonight I felt like I did a good job of that."

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