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State of the Rockets: James Harden dominates scrimmages, and a conversation about Eric Gordon

Composite photo by Brandon Strange

With no scrimmage stats available, we're going to change up for format a little bit today.

Eric Gordon goes down with ankle injury

On last week's episode or Red Nation Hoops, I talked with SI's Michael Shapiro about what we were looking to get out of these scrimmages from the Rockets. Shapiro and I came away with the same answer: "How does Eric Gordon look?"

We both said this because we know the Rockets have a playoff ceiling without Eric Gordon. When he's playing well, he turns them into a different, more dangerous team and their entire micro-ball concept relies on them having multiple capable ball handlers like him. Gordon had also been pretty bad this year, presumably due to injuries, so it was natural to be curious how he would look after a four-month layoff.

So then the scrimmages started and Eric Gordon shoots 2 for 8 from three-point range in his first game. No big deal, right? It's the first sanctioned NBA game in months, and he wasn't the only player that was rusty. Then he shot 0 for 6 against Memphis in the second game and while it was a little head scratching, it still was pretty easy to write off. Before turning his left ankle against Boston, Gordon shot 1 for 6 from three-point range.

"Uh-oh," said Rockets play-by-play announcer Craig Ackerman on the broadcast. This was naturally my first response as well as a slew of panicking Rockets fans weighed in on the injury on Twitter. Then the broadcast replayed the play where Gordon turned his ankle. Then Gordon was shown being helped off the floor, but he was noticeably able to put some weight on the ankle.

Let me be clear: I am not a doctor, but as someone who's watched a lot of basketball over the last 10 years, the injury didn't look that severe in the moment. I say all of this to say, before the X-ray results came in and before we were briefed by Mike D'Antoni post-game with an update on Gordon, I had a thought that may be somewhat controversial:

As long as Gordon is able to safely return to the floor in a month, this may end up being good for him and the Rockets as a team.

Again, let me reiterate what I said at the top of this diatribe - the Rockets need Gordon and they have a playoff ceiling without him. However, temporarily as the Rockets are trying to find a rhythm on both ends of the floor, it may be better for Gordon to be re-introduced to the group later on, when they are rolling.

"Of course Eric is a huge part of what we're doing and what we're trying to do," said James Harden after the game. "Hopefully he can get his ankle healed as soon as possible. But we've been dealing with adversity all year. It's an opportunity for guys to step up."

Players like Danuel House, Austin Rivers, and Ben McLemore can sufficiently fill in the gaps for Gordon until the playoffs roll around and these players may benefit from the extra reps themselves.

For example, someone like Austin Rivers, who seems to struggle as a tertiary ball-handler, seems like an obvious temporary beneficiary with an expanded role. It's a really dark thing to say, but Rivers' highest of highs with this Rockets team have come when he's been the third guard - meaning when there was an injury in the guard rotation. I sort of expect that to happen now.

When asked who will start if Gordon is unable to return, Mike D'Antoni was pretty vague.

"We'll see," said D'Antoni. "I started Ben [McLemore in the second half] for a couple reasons. One is it's an easier rotation because Danuel [House] has to backup Covington at forward so it's better. Danuel also thought he could start. We'll see."

Mike D'Antoni is big on role definitions, and he's actually said that he likes Danuel House as the sixth man and backup forward a few times throughout the season. It's possible Ben McLemore starts on Friday. However, if I were to venture a guess, I would say D'Antoni caves and inserts the better player into the starting lineup at some point during Gordon's absence. Either way, both House and McLemore will see more playing time.

Eric Gordon has not been particularly strong defensively this year and I suspect the Rockets will temporarily be better without him in the rotation.

Again, I don't think the Rockets are better in the long-run without Gordon, but I suspect they will see temporary benefits because of how poorly he's played.

Bringing Gordon off the bench in a minutes restriction before playoff time sounds more natural than force-feeding him over thirty minutes a game when he's struggling so badly.

James Harden is ready for real basketball

If you were ever worried about James Harden's conditioning or ready-level for the resumption of the regular season, he crushed those worries about 15 minutes into his first scrimmage. Harden has been firing on all cylinders in Houston's training camp and it's actually quite incredible to watch - even after all these years.

90 points

25 assists
20 rebounds
5 steals
2 blocks

23 of 46 from the field
16 of 29 from three-point range
28 of 33 from the free throw line

74.4% True Shooting

+47 in 90 minutes

These are cartoon statistics that feel like they have to have been fabricated. Harden credits his offseason conditioning and doing things like sprints and stairs after practices for how well he's played. Whatever the case, the 30-year-old guard certainly looks ready for games that count.

Jeff Green has been solid

I want to careful as I'm writing this because Jeff Green has a tendency to get fanbases across the NBA excited only for the up-and-down nature of his game to upset them. However, so far, Green has been a really solid pickup for the Rockets.

"Oh yeah," said Mike D'Antoni when asked if he could see Green playing in Houston's playoff rotation. "Jeff's going to play. Jeff's a heck of a basketball player."

Green posted 18 points on 6 of 7 shooting from the field and 3 of 4 shooting from three-point range against Memphis. He's been averaging 18.6 points, 5.7 rebounds, and 1.6 blocks on 73.9% True Shooting per 36 minutes ever since he signed with the Rockets. He's been solid on the small-ball forward/center role he's been asked to play for the team and it may be a situation where this is what he is as a basketball player from now on.

Again, it's only been 10 games with Houston and Green is infamous for his inconsistency. It's something to monitor and acknowledge for right now.

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Houston now trails in the fall classic

Astros fall in World Series Game 1 as Braves come out swinging

Framber Valdez had a forgettable start in World Series Game 1 as the Braves tagged him with five runs. Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

After a dominant end to win the ALCS and American League pennant, the Houston Astros welcomed in the National League champion Atlanta Braves for World Series Game 1 at Minute Maid Park on Tuesday. With Houston favored to win not just this game but the entire series, the Braves shook up those expectations by finding early success at the plate to build a lead they would hold to take a 1-0 series lead.

Final Score: Braves 6, Astros 2

World Series (Best of Seven): Atlanta leads 1-0

Winning Pitcher: A.J. Minter

Losing Pitcher: Framber Valdez

Valdez unable to replicate ALCS Game 5 success as Braves mount early lead

For the optimist, not having home-field advantage in an MLB postseason series affords you a benefit: you can score first and take captive momentum first in the series. The Braves did that against Framber Valdez, as Jorge Soler became the first player in league history to hit a homer in the first plate appearance of a World Series, putting Atlanta out to an immediate 1-0 lead. They would get another in the first frame, getting a one-out infield single by Ozzie Albies, who would steal second to get in position for an RBI double by Austin Riley.

Houston had the chance to respond in their first inning against former teammate Charlie Morton, getting a single and two walks to load the bases with no outs. They'd strand all three runners, though, as Morton made it through unscathed but having used 26 pitches. Atlanta kept putting stress on Valdez, extending their lead to three runs with back-to-back singles to start the second before later getting an RBI groundout.

Valdez gave up two more in the top of the third, once again allowing a leadoff single, this one setting up a two-run homer to make it a 5-0 Braves lead and forcing Houston's starter out of the game early. Yimi Garcia entered and was able to retire the three batters he faced to end the frame.

Braves lose Morton to injury as both bullpens begin long night

After stranding the bases loaded in the bottom of the first to keep the Astros off the board, Morton followed it up with a 1-2-3 second. He started the bottom of the third by retiring his fifth batter in a row, getting a strikeout of Jose Altuve. He would immediately call trainers to get him out of the game, though, as he would later be diagnosed with a fractured fibula, presumably from a ball that ricocheted off his leg in the prior inning, ending his season in a disappointing turn of events for the Braves.

That set up a long night for both bullpens, and next up for Houston was Jake Odorizzi. He started with a scoreless fourth, working around a two-out error to keep it a five-run game. The Astros began a rally in the bottom of the fourth, getting runners on the corners with one out on a Kyle Tucker double and Yuli Gurriel single. Chas McCormick brought in the first run of the board for Houston, but that's all they would get as Atlanta's lead remained four runs.

Astros drop Game 1

Odorizzi kept going on the mound, tossing a 1-2-3 fifth, then getting one out before a one-out single in the top of the sixth would prompt Dusty Baker to move on to Phil Maton, who finished the inning. Maton returned in the top of the seventh, getting a strikeout before a double and a walk would result in the call to bring in Ryne Stanek.

A double play against his first batter allowed Stanek to finish the seventh, and then he returned in the eighth. He faced three batters that frame, getting one out before a walk and a single would put runners on the corners as Houston moved on to Brooks Raley. A sac fly by Freddie Freeman off of Raley made it a five-run lead again, but a leadoff triple by Yordan Alvarez in the bottom of the inning would set up Carlos Correa for an RBI, a groundout to make it 6-2.

Atlanta's bullpen continued to do well, though, limiting the damage to that one run in the eighth, then returning to hold on to the four-run lead in the bottom of the ninth to give the Braves the upset win to start the series. The loss extends their home losing streak in the World Series to five games (having lost all four at home in the 2019 World Series against the Nationals) and puts them down 0-1 and in need of a win in Game 2 to try and reset the series into a best-of-five.

Up Next: World Series Game 2 will be another 7:09 PM Central scheduled start time on Wednesday from Minute Maid Park. The expected pitching matchup is Max Fried, who is 1-1 with a 3.78 ERA in three postseason starts, for the Braves, and Jose Urquidy, who went just 1.2 innings while allowing six runs (five earned) in his start in the ALCS.

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