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State of the Rockets: Losing streak snapped, Russell Westbrook's tear, Ben McLemore's dropping minutes, and more

Rockets' advanced stats (per cleaningtheglass.com):

As of last week:

Offensive RTG: 113.3 (4th)

Defensive RTG: 109.4 (15th)

Net RTG: +3.9 (9th)

As of this week:

Offensive RTG: 113.5 (T-4th)

Defensive RTG: 109.4 (15th)

Net RTG: +4.1 (8th)

Biggest developments:

1. Rockets snap losing streak at 4 games

There are few things more dark and scary in the NBA than when a title contender goes on an extended losing streak. It may not be as dark as a possible career ending injury, but it's definitely near the top of the list. The team becomes a part of the national discussion in the way it doesn't want to be, fan bases get ornery, and nervous whispers of about the head coach become a thing. It's the natural order of things of a team with high expectations.

To put it in less subtly, if Houston hadn't snapped their losing streak by now, there might have been a different number one for "biggest developments" this week. It was important Houston get two wins under their belt just so the dark cloud isn't hovering over them.

2. Russell Westbrook continues his January tear

The only positive development during Houston's losing streak is Russell Westbrook finding his rhythm within Houston's offense. Granted, a lot of it has come out of necessity as you'll see in the next development. However, given how shaky Westbrook has looked during parts of the season, this is still a good development for Houston.

Russell Westbrook in January:

31.9 PPG

8.5 APG

8.5 RPG

2.0 SPG

58.0% True Shooting

A big reason for this bump in efficiency may be the dramatic shift in Westbrook's shot profile. In January, Westbrook is only taking 2.4 threes per game - less than half of what he was attempting per game last season (5.6). This is too big of a development to break down in a couple of paragraphs here, so I'll be writing more about Westbrook later this week.

3. Uhh... James Harden?

At the time of writing this, James Harden is listed as questionable to play on Sunday against the Denver Nuggets due to a bruised left thigh contusion. Harden injured it in the game against the Timberwolves and elected to play, but effectively took a third row seat to Russell Westbrook as he was cooking ('back seat' is not a good enough term to describe how much Harden ceded the offense). Due to the injury, Harden was predictably awful (12 points, 5 assists, 4 rebounds, 3 blocks, and 3 turnovers on 3 of 13 shooting from the field, 0 of 6 from three-point range, and a plus-minus of -7).

However, even before the injury, Harden's not been himself as of late. While Westbrook has flourished in the month of January, Harden's had a bit of a downturn.

James Harden in January:

29.0 PPG

7.4 RPG

6.8 APG

35.6% from the field

25.2% from three-point range

Harden's still getting gaudy boxscore numbers, but he's lacked his usual uber-efficiency. His three-point stroke has completely alluded him and Russell Westbrook had had to become Houston's superman for them to even have a chance in some of these games. He'll probably be fine long-term, but it might not be the worst idea for Houston to rest him at least once on the upcoming road trip along with Westbrook. Harden is playing the most minutes per game (37.0) of his career since 2015-16 (38.1). The Rockets had mentioned there would be a rest plan for both Harden and Westbrook, but so far, it's only applied to Westbrook.

As mentioned in the last 'State of the Rockets', Harden's also taken a step back defensively recently and that has not changed. Perhaps giving Harden a rest game will yield more maximum effort games and aid his shooting efficiency at the same time.

Week of games in review:

Houston understandably got killed for dropping that game to the Oklahoma City on Monday, but they had honestly played three quarters of really solid basketball. Like a lot of games this season, it was one quarter that killed them. Houston allowed a staggering 41 points to the Thunder while only scoring 20 of their own. Chris Paul, Danilo Gallinari, and Dennis Schroeder absolutely had their way against Houston's defense (combined for 76 points on 25 of 53 shooting from the field).

The Denver game was one of those "It could get really dark if Houston loses this" games. With no Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, Paul Millsap, or Michael Porter Jr., that was a complete 'give me' game for Houston that they could not afford to lose. Fortunately, the outcome of the game was never in doubt and Houston managed to force it into garbage time in the fourth quarter.

The Minnesota game wasn't pretty for Houston, but again, it went in the win column and that means a lot for Houston at the moment. It was also uncomfortable to watch Shabazz Napier, Karl-Anthony Towns, and James Harden all have scary injury moments in the game. However, Harden's injury also contributed to what will go down as Westbrook's best game in a Rockets' uniform to date. Westbrook logged a fantastic 45 points, 10 assists, and 5 rebounds on 16 of 27 shooting from the field and 13 of 13 from the free throw line. Westbrook won't always have games like this, but when he does, it's definitely important to appreciate the heights he can reach as a player.

Questions for the coming week:

1. Will James Harden sit out against the Nuggets?

The injury may not be that serious, but it gives Houston the opportunity to give Harden a quality rest game before having to close out a tough road trip. It may also help him work through his shooting slump. The tricky balance will be deciding when to rest Russell Westbrook on this back-to-back if Harden does indeed take the Denver game off. Considering he's not listed on the injury report, the obvious takeaway would be that Westbrook is going to play in Denver and rest in Utah, but this only gives Houston one available superstar for each game (assuming Harden sits in Denver).

Utah and Denver are tough opponents (at altitude) and both have cases of being as good, if not better than Houston this year.

2. Can Houston secure the tiebreaker against Denver?

The Rockets currently have a 2-1 season series lead over Denver so upcoming game will be for the tiebreaker. This is really important as both teams will likely be jockeying for positioning in the West all season long and if Houston can grab it, it gives them a leg up at the end of the season if the team records are even. Denver also just lost to Houston on Wednesday and will presumably have a healthier rotation to throw at Houston today.

3. Will Danuel House or Eric Gordon steal the starting spot back from Ben McLemore?

It's gone under the radar, but Ben McLemore's minutes have slowly been ticking down for almost two weeks now.

@ Memphis - 38 minutes

vs. Portland - 24 minutes

vs. Los Angeles - 24 minutes

vs. Oklahoma City - 20 minutes

vs. Denver - 18 minutes

@ Minnesota - 16 minutes

Ben McLemore has been a nice find for Houston this season, but his promotion to the starting unit was always a bit bizarre. Mike D'Antoni justified it as a way to get Austin Rivers more minutes and a way to slide Danuel House in at backup power forward to get P.J. Tucker some rest, but only the former has been true. Starting lineups don't matter as much in the NBA anymore, but having a lineup of Russell Westbrook, James Harden, and Ben McLemore is asking to get back-cut to death. Also, a starter is still traditionally supposed to be one of the team's six most important players, which McLemore is not. Gordon and House are both better players, and more importantly, better fits.

It'll be interesting to see if D'Antoni decides to pull the plug on this lineup.

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Jose Urquidy is a surprising choice to start Game 2. Photo by Getty Images.

After a long and tumultuous season, the Houston Astros made it to their 3rd World Series in five years and will take on the Atlanta Braves Tuesday night.

Houston had the better overall regular season record, so games 1 & 2 will be played at Minute Maid Park while games 3-5 will be held at Truist Park in Atlanta.

(If necessary, the final two contests will be played back at Minute Maid Park).

The Braves got this far by defeating the Milwaukee Brewers in the ALDS 3-1 and the Los Angeles Dodgers in six games (4-2).

Atlanta prevailed with timely hitting from guys like Joc Pederson, Austin Riley and Eddie Rosario performing like an MVP this postseason.

The Braves received solid pitching outings from guys like Ian Anderson, Max Fried and former Astro Charlie Morton.

Atlanta used clutch hitting and solid pitching to make to their first World Series since 1999.

Meanwhile, the Astros made it back to the World Series by defeating the Chicago White Sox in the ALDS 3-1 and out-slugged the Red Sox four games to two.

According to Fox Bet, the Astros are favored at -154 to win the World Series. This is certainly an obtainable goal for Houston's team as they have the experience, hitting and pitching to compete with anyone.

Can Houston's bats stay hot?

The most intriguing matchup this series will be the Astros' bats facing off against this Braves pitching staff. On paper, Houston's lineup seems to be favored for their depth. Jose Altuve at the top of the batting order is always a threat to get on base, and behind him are a plethora of hitters who can drive in multiple runs.

The two best bats this postseason thus far for the Astros are ALCS MVP Yordan Alvarez (.522 batting average) and this year's American League batting title champion Yuli Gurriel (.455 batting average). The Cuban natives have lit up pitching and will look to continue their torrid hitting in the World Series.

Other Astros who could be impactful at the plate against the Braves include Michael Brantley, Alex Bregman and Kyle Tucker. All three of their batting average's in the .200's respectfully and could come up big at any time.

This lineup is so deep, Atlanta's pitchers won't receive many breaks, if at all this series.

Will the pitching step up again?

Losing Lance McCullers Jr. for the World Series certainly isn't ideal, but not impossible to overcome as proven in the ALCS against the Red Sox.

Framber Valdez pitched the best game of his career when he threw 8 innings and surrendered only one run in Game 3, while Luis Garcia had his best start of the postseason and received the Game 6 win. Both of these pitchers have stepped up in McCullers' absence and will have a huge impact on the series. Valdez is set to start Game 1 on Tuesday night.

If Jose Urquidy and Zack Greinke can also pitch deeper into games, there will be less stress on the bullpen and give the Astros a better chance to stay in games. And we won't have to wait long to see Urquidy, as he will start Game 2, according to Astros manager Dusty Baker.

In an ideal scenario, the Astros' starting pitchers should throw six innings of work and let Kendall Graveman, Ryne Stanek and Ryan Pressly closeout games as they have all season.

Of course this is the best-case scenario, which doesn't always happen, but other arms can be used to bridge the gaps that include Phil Maton, Yimi Garcia in short relief outings and Cristian Javier and Jake Odorizzi can pitch multiple innings if needed.

Even if a starter has a clunker of a start, this bullpen has done a great job of keeping things close and setting up the Astros for success.

Will this be Carlos Correa's "Last Dance" with Astros?

One can only imagine what is going on in Carlos Correa's mind right now. No one is implying that the free agent to be will not be focused this series, but it's hard to fathom this upcoming offseason isn't a distraction right now.

The 27-year-old shortstop is set to receive multiple offers from different teams and land one of the richest contracts once this season concludes.

If this truly is his final season with the Astros, why not go out on top and win one more title before moving on?

Let's hope this "Last Dance" for Correa is a slow one, so we can all enjoy it a little longer.

Will Dusty's experience prove to be a difference-maker?

Dusty Baker's experience could be beneficial for Houston's chances of hoisting another trophy as he has managed teams in parts of 24 seasons.

He's the only skipper to ever lead five franchises to the postseason and obtain more than 2,000 career victories.

This is the second time he as taken a club to the World Series. He took the 2002 San Francisco Giants to the Fall Classic but lost to the Angels in seven games.

It's safe to assume the 72-year-old seems eager to win his first championship as a manager to cap off a Hall of Fame career.

Final projection

As previously mentioned, the Astros are favored to win this series. If Houston can continue to stay hot at the plate, receive solid outings from their pitchers and just play Astros baseball, there is a good chance this city will have yet another Commissioner's Trophy in their display case.

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