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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 loses first game to Oakland

A's end losing streak against Astros with late homers

Lance McCullers Jr. went five innings of one-run ball Friday night. Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

After maintaining their stronghold against the A's in Thursday's home opener, the Astros had the chance to lock up the three-game series victory against Oakland with a win on Friday night. On the mound, Lance McCullers Jr. hoped to improve upon his first start against this same team, a five-inning one-run outing.

Instead, he would have the same outcome, once again lasting five innings while allowing one run, before a big tie-breaking home run late in the game would push Oakland out of their losing skid against the Astros.

Final Score: A's 6, Astros 2

Astros' Record: 6-2, tied for first in AL West

Winning Pitcher: Yusmeiro Petit (2-0)

Losing Pitcher: Bryan Abreu (1-1)

McCullers Jr. makes it through five

McCullers Jr. looked sharp through the first three innings, allowing just two baserunners, one on a second-inning single, then a walk in the third. Oakland did better against him the second time through their order in the fourth, with Jed Lowrie leading the inning off with a solo home run to put Oakland in front 1-0.

They went on to load the bases with one out on an error and two walks, but McCullers would strand them all. He returned for the fifth, a much cleaner inning where a caught stealing by Martin Maldonado would help him face just three batters. His final line: 5.0 IP, 2 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 3 BB, 6 K, 88 P.

Oakland gets homer-happy to even the series

McCullers Jr. would leave the game without being eligible for the winning or losing decision, as an RBI-groundout by Kyle Tucker in the fourth would have it tied 1-1. Bryan Abreu was the first out of Houston's bullpen, and he would attempt to eat up multiple innings. He had perfect innings in the sixth and seventh, retiring six A's in order to maintain the stalemate.

Abreu remained in the game in the top of the eighth, allowing a single before getting a strikeout, ending his run as Dusty Baker would bring in left-handed Blake Taylor. Taylor would give up a single against his first batter, then a loud go-ahead three-run home run to Matt Olson to push the A's back in front 4-1. They'd add two more insurance runs off of Joe Smith in the top of the ninth, getting a two-run home run by Mark Canha to extend the lead to 6-1.

Oakland's bullpen would hold on to the newly created lead, allowing just one run on a sac fly by Jose Altuve in the bottom of the ninth, finally ending their losing streak against Houston and setting up the rubber game on Saturday to be for the series victory.

Up Next: This series's finale will be a Saturday afternoon start, with first pitch scheduled for 3:05 PM. For the Astros, Jose Urquidy (0-0, 4.15 ERA) will look to get a win on the board, while Oakland will hand the ball to Frankie Montas (0-1, 23.63 ERA).

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