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State of the Rockets: Winding back into form

Russell Westbrook has returned to practice. Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

It's been quite a while since I've been able to do one of these so excuse the rust. The NBA season is grinding back into gear within the bowels of Disney World and with that, we finally have new things to talk about in regard to the Houston Rockets.

So let's not waste any time and get into it.

Rockets' advanced stats (per cleaningtheglass.com)

As of March 11th (day the season was suspended)

Offensive RTG:113.6 (3rd)

Defensive RTG: 110.2 (15th)

Net RTG: +3.4

What was Houston before the pause?

Good question - you tell me. The Rockets have been like four different teams within a season and it's hard to judge which one is the real Rockets. Normally, you never want to judge a team off of only their recent play, but Houston had such a drastic identify shift once they shifted to playing P.J. Tucker at center full-time. So in the micro-ball era of Rockets' basketball, the team has a record of 12-6, roughly equivalent to a 54-win playoff team. Here are their advanced stats:

Offensive RTG: 114.1

Defensive RTG: 110.8

Net RTG: +3.3

A 54-win team and +3.3 net rating is about what you'd consider on the lower end of title contenders, but respectfully still a contender. To put that into context, that's a higher win-percentage than Nuggets, Heat, Jazz, and Mavericks, but still lower than five other teams in the NBA. The net rating (the more important number) is still higher than the Jazz, Nuggets, Heat, and Thunder, but lower than six other teams including the Mavericks.

In summation, the micro-ball Rockets profile as a top four team in their conference and a low-end title contender.

What effect will the four-month layoff and bubble environment have on Houston?

Nick Wright IMPRESSIVE Daryl Morey said Rockets 'Have as Good a Chance as Anybody' to Win NBA Title www.youtube.com

This is really the million dollar question and when you ask seven different league people, you're likely to get seven different answers. My educated guess is that the Rockets will benefit from not having to play road playoff series, but other than that, they aren't more uniquely situated in the bubble than any other title contender. Rockets GM Daryl Morey has been pretty vocal about how he believes the Rockets will benefit from the extra training camp more than any other team.

"We had one of our very top players switched out for another very top player in Covington," Morey said before Friday's Rockets practice. "I think that is very hard to do in the middle of the season. So this allows us to get extra coordination."

However, when you ask national media types, they tend to believe Houston and their up-and-down style of play is advantaged in this environment. For example, Matt Moore of The Action Network said on my podcast earlier this month that he believes Houston's variance and three-point shooting lends itself to being better-suited for the bubble. This isn't the first time this opinion has been spouted. People are buying high on a bubble-championship for the Rockets right now.

Bovada is giving the Rockets the fourth best odds to win the NBA title right now at +1200 which feels insane, but I guess not so much when you consider both Los Angeles teams are still ahead of them.

How does Eric Gordon look?

For obvious reasons, most of the national chatter around the Rockets will be their micro-ball approach, and while that's a significant story, the biggest story remaining in Houston's season has got to be the health of Eric Gordon. This was by for Gordon's worst season in a Rockets' uniform (shot 37% from the field and 31.9% from three). He was clearly dealing with a knee issue that's plagued him all season and forced him to get surgery, but for the Rockets to reach their peak potential as a team, they need Eric Gordon of old back. This team philosophy falls apart without Eric Gordon being a dynamic slasher who can space the floor adequately for Russell Westbrook and James Harden.

It doesn't even matter if the Rockets choose to start Danuel House at small forward. We know by now that Eric Gordon is one of Houston's five most important players. Gordon will play in all of the key fourth quarters for Houston, he will their main secondary ball-handler, and he will need to hit threes at at least a 37% clip for a deep playoff run. A good Eric Gordon game gives the Rockets a feeling of invincibility they don't otherwise have.

"Everything's been good," Gordon said when asked about the knee before Monday's practice. "The explosion's been there. It's only been a week or so, but I've been looking forward to getting back into the fold of things."

Gordon had returned the game before the stoppage and has now had significant time off to heal that knee. According to Mike D'Antoni, he's been a standout in practice.

"He hasn't missed a rep," D'Antoni said earlier this month. "He looks good, he's shooting the ball extremely well. If you had to make an assessment of everybody, this is a big bonus for us. He's ready to go."

James Harden and Russell Westbrook make late entrances to Orlando

James Harden and Russell Westbrook were absent at the Rockets' first few practices in Orlando due to a family emergency and a positive coronavirus test respectively. It's been suggested that James Harden's absence from the early part of Houston's Orlando camp could be detrimental, but I remain skeptical. Harden's kept himself in good shape over the quarantine period and was even working out in the Toyota Center when he wasn't in the bubble.

Westbrook's late arrival is a little more complicated for a couple of reasons. First, he arrived a few days later than Harden and will only get about two practices in with the team before they play their first exhibition game. The Rockets still have plenty of time to get him acclimated, but it could be a little bit of time before he's in rhythm with the team again.

Also, we still don't quite know the long-term health effects of coronavirus. According to John Hopkins, COVID-19 can cause lung damage and breathing problems that exist long after recovery. You can see why this could prove to be problematic for a professional athlete. Fortunately, by his own account, it seems Westbrook only experienced a mild case of the virus. According to the limited research we have, milder cases are less likely to cause scarring in the lungs.

WIth that being said, it's still something important to monitor because we know very little about this virus and I'm not going to pretend to be a doctor.

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After a rough, disheartening loss the night before to even the series at one game apiece, the Astros tried to shake it off and regroup for a win on Thursday to get the series win against the Diamondbacks in Arizona. Here is a quick recap of the finale:

Final Score: Diamondbacks 5, Astros 4.

Record: 6-6, second in the AL West.

Winning pitcher: Junior Guerra (1-0, 0.00 ERA).

Losing pitcher: Ryan Pressly (0-1, 40.50 ERA).

Bielak tosses an impressive start as Houston puts him in winning position

After both teams finished the first three innings scoreless, the Astros were able to get a little bit of good luck on their side, unlike the night prior. Jose Altuve started the inning with a much-needed single, stole second, then moved to third on a groundout for the second out. That set up Yuli Gurriel, who hit a ball down the third-base line that would strike the bag and bounce away from Arizona, allowing Altuve to score and put Houston up 1-0.

Though he likely would have preferred more run support, Brandon Bielak made do with that one run in his first career MLB start. He was able to complete five innings of work, holding Arizona scoreless over that span despite allowing a runner in each inning. He left in line for the win, with a final line of 5.0 IP, 2 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 3 BB, 1 K, 0 HR.

Altuve extends the lead, then Diamondbacks go ahead

Jose Altuve helped double the lead in the top of the sixth, connecting for a one-out solo home run to make it 2-0. With Bielak's night over at five innings, Cy Sneed took over in the bottom of the sixth and allowed back-to-back one-out doubles to cut Houston's lead in half. He allowed a single to put runners on the corners before Dusty Baker would move on to another reliever to try and preserve the lead. Blake Taylor would enter but allowed the tying RBI-single to take Bielak out of winning position. Taylor would go on to allow a go-ahead run before getting out of the jam.

In the bottom of the seventh, Taylor was still on the mound but would only get two outs before another call to the pen. Andre Scrubb would enter and get the final out of the inning. In the top of the eighth, Jose Altuve would improve to 3-for-4 on the night with a two-out double, setting up Alex Bregman for a go-ahead two-run home run to make it 4-3, Houston.

Ryan Pressly allows the walk-off

Scrubb went back to the mound in the bottom of the eighth and was able to record a 1-2-3 inning to move the game to the ninth. After a scoreless top of the ninth, Ryan Pressly would attempt to get the save in the bottom of the inning. Instead, he would allow the walk-off, loading the bases with no outs on a walk and two singles before a two-RBI single to give Arizona the win and the series victory.

Up Next: The Astros will travel to Oakland to kick off a three-game weekend series with the A's on Friday at 8:10 PM Central. The A's will send Chris Bassitt (1-0, 0.93 ERA) to the mound while Houston will turn to Zack Greinke (0-0, 5.00 ERA) to help cut down Oakland's division lead.

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