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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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Jovan Abernathy is an international marathoner and blogger. Check out her new blog, HTown Run Tourist. Follow her on Twitter @jovanabernathy. Instagram @HTownRunTourist. Facebook @jovanabernathy. Join her facebook group: H-Town Run Tourist

Six years ago, I got this great idea to become a tourist of Houston on foot. I had no idea what I was doing or where it was going. All I knew was to put on my running shoes, walk out the door, and just go. Go learn, go talk, go ask without judgements. What I found is that Houston was full of diversity. We all knew that. However, let yourself be immersed in it. Look and listen to the sounds of different languages being spoken around you. Smell the scents of the different cuisines. You would think you were in a foreign country. This made me more curious.

As I explored the emotion of curiosity, it led me to change my behavior. Where I might have rushed to this place and to the next, I took it slower. Where, usually, I would have just assumed that I already knew, I found myself asking more questions. When I asked more questions, I had to acknowledge that I did not already know, so I practiced listening. As I listened more, I felt compelled to show more appreciation to the person who interrupted their busy day to educate me. This made me feel grateful.

I took that gratitude and wanted to share with others. It blew my mind when people would say that they hated Houston. It was boring. The people are mean and it was ugly. And even more shocking was Houston is not walkable. Instead of getting offended, I decided to do my part in brightening up the day of the Houstonians who were stuck in a rut. Who saw and did the same things day after day. I didn't judge because I knew they could get out of that rut by simply deciding that today they do something different. I braced myself for rejection, but put myself out there to share the wonderful things that I had learned about Houston. Given the chance, the vast majority, was ready to learn a different way. This made me proud.

It is true that 2020 has been full of disasters. These are opportunities if we choose to see them that way. If anything that COVID-19 taught me the answer was not MORE, but it is LESS. We have the tendency to take on too much, we had the unique opportunity to take on less. Thus, instead of going to exhaustion, we had the opportunity to rest.

Then, the tragedy of the death of Houston's own George Floyd happened. It could not have happened at a worse time. My heart goes out to his family. Some might use it as an opportunity to work out their own frustrations by causing more problems with violence and looting. My hope is that whatever happens will be an expression of appropriate sadness, but with Houston's best attributes; curiosity, gratitude, and pride. Instead of LESS it is time for MORE. MORE curiosity. To see if Houston's law enforcement cares about the well-being of Houston's black community and make changes in protocols. MORE gratitude. For the opportunity to express the frustration in a peaceful way. MORE pride. To not destroy this city and give it over to violence possibly doing more damage to the economics of business owners. We can see this as the opportunity to take time to heal.

Houston has changed. As I restart my exploration, I'm not looking for LESS. I'm looking for MORE this time. I'm looking with MORE curiosity. Because I know that we have even MORE to show each other. I'm looking with MORE gratitude because we have endured so much already and there are better times ahead. And, I'm looking with MORE pride because just as we did it before, we still have it in us to do it again. I have one request: if you see me in the streets, promise me that you will say hello.

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