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.

With no James Harden, Russell Westbrook, or Clint Capela, the Utah Jazz were justifiably favored to win this game by 14 points. However, through creativity and relentless attack from Houston's backup guards, the Rockets managed to win an unwinnable game on the second half of a grueling Denver/Utah back-to-back.

Eric Gordon and Austin Rivers showed how helpful they could be for Houston off the bench by combining for 71 points on 21 of 43 shooting from the field and 8 of 19 shooting from three-point range. The Rockets went small with P.J. Tucker at center and strangely, the Rockets were able to keep his minutes to only 32. Houston took advantage of their quickness matchup and relentlessly targeted Rudy Gobert on the perimeter.

Danuel House played a ton of minutes due to the lack of guard depth behind Gordon and Rivers and the positional versatility he has, being a 6'7" player. It'll be interesting to see if House or Gordon return to Houston's starting lineup soon. Ben McLemore's minutes have been tracking down and both House and Gordon have been playing much better as of late.

Whatever the case, this was a huge win for the Rockets. Houston's now won 3 out of their last 4 games after losing 4 games in a row. This was supposed to be an automatic loss and the Rockets managed to pull it off. It's the kind of win that could spark a run for a struggling team.

Star of the game: The journey Eric Gordon's gone through since he's been drafted has been a long one. From being traded to dealing with injuries, Gordon's career hasn't been easy by any means. To see him have the night he did tonight was nice. Gordon had a career-high 50 points on 14 of 22 shooting from the field, 6 of 11 shooting from deep, and 16 of 20 shooting from the free throw line.

Honorable mention: Danuel House started the season by earning his way into Houston's starting lineup and has since been in a bit of a slump. Tonight, however, House was integral to Houston's victory. In addition to playing a staggering 46 minutes, House tallied 21 points, 11 rebounds, 5 steals, and 2 assists on 6 of 14 shooting from the field, 2 of 5 shooting from distance, and 7 of 9 shooting from the free throw line.

Key moment: After starting the game down 0-4, the Rockets went on an impressive 11-0 run and never looked back. On the backs of Eric Gordon (50 points), Danuel House (21 points), and Austin Rivers (21 points), Houston led a balanced offensive attack throughout the course of the game and never really waivered.

Up next: The Rockets finish off their road trip on Wednesday by traveling to Portland at 9:00 p.m. to face the Trail Blazers.

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