Close, but no cigar

The Rockets report, brought to you by APG&E: Clippers come out on top of Houston 122-119

The Rockets report, brought to you by APG&E: Clippers come out on top of Houston 122-119

This will be a tough loss for Rockets fans to swallow considering Houston led for the majority of the second half before surrendering to a 13-4 run in the final 86 seconds of the game. The Rockets fought hard and seemed to know that the Clippers might try to swarm James Harden as the Nuggets had done the night before and were much better prepared for it.

Shooters like Ben McLemore, P.J. Tucker, and Thabo Sefolosha were prepared from the start of the game to take and make wide-open shots generated by the defense played on Harden. McLemore had one of his better games of the season, shooting 4 of 9 from three-point range. He was in the correct spots, didn't hesitate to shoot, and came through big for Houston, even in a loss.

Harden was an absolute super hero for the Rockets tonight (37 points, 12 assists, 8 rebounds, and 2 steals). There's little doubt that the Rockets watched a ton of film on the Denver loss to help be better equipped to face traps in the future. He still managed to be efficient (77.3% true shooting), which is incredible considering the kind of defenders the Clippers were throwing his way (Patrick Beverley, Kawhi Leonard, etc...). It's a shame his team couldn't capitalize don't the stretch because this could have been a game to put into Harden's Hall of Fame warchest.

This game, along with Wednesday night's loss to Denver, could come back to haunt the Rockets to end the season. Houston will, without a doubt, be one of the teams Denver and L.A. will battle for position with to close the season. The whole season counts and it's never too early to discuss tiebreakers as the Rockets learned firsthand last season. Without starting small forward Danuel House and sixth man Eric Gordon, it was still an impressive performance (up until the end) nonetheless.

Star of the game: James Harden was pretty much the only reason Houston didn't get blown out tonight. Harden was again getting swarmed all night and he passed well to shooters out of the double teams, which kept Houston in the game. He ended the game with 37 points, 12 assists, 8 rebounds, 2 steals, and surprisingly only 4 turnovers. For the amount of usage he had dealing with the trap all game, that's remarkably low.

Honorable mention: While his streak of 20-rebound games has come to a close, Clint Capela had possibly his best defensive game of the season. Capela was doing a great job doing the balancing act of switching out or playing help defense and getting back in time to protect the rim. He logged 17 points, 19 rebounds, and 2 blocks.

Key moment: Houston's execution in the fourth quarter is what cost them this game. To start, the Rockets fouled the Clippers four times in one possession, putting them in the bonus instantly. Los Angeles capitalized in a big way, getting to the free throw line 16 times compared to Houston's 10 trips. Russell Westbrook's decision making and effort on defense will also be the lasting memory of this game. Not only did he pass up an open P.J. Tucker to take the last three of the game, but with 40 seconds left, Westbrook walked back on a Clippers fastbreak possession leading to a wide-open Lou Williams three.

Up next: The Rockets return to Houston to play the Mavericks at 2:30 p.m. on Sunday.

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The Astros have their work cut out for them. Composite Getty Image.

Through 20 games, the Houston Astros have managed just six wins and are in last place in the AL West.

Their pitching staff trails only Colorado with a 5.24 ERA and big-money new closer Josh Hader has given up the same number of earned runs in 10 games as he did in 61 last year.

Despite this, these veteran Astros, who have reached the AL Championship Series seven consecutive times, have no doubt they’ll turn things around.

“If there’s a team that can do it, it’s this team,” shortstop Jeremy Peña said.

First-year manager Joe Espada, who was hired in January to replace the retired Dusty Baker, discussed his team’s early struggles.

“It’s not ideal,” he said. “It’s not what we expected, to come out of the shoot playing this type of baseball. But you know what, this is where we’re at and we’ve got to pick it up and play better. That’s just the bottom line.”

Many of Houston’s problems have stemmed from a poor performance by a rotation that has been decimated by injuries. Ace Justin Verlander and fellow starter José Urquidy haven’t pitched this season because of injuries and lefty Framber Valdez made just two starts before landing on the injured list with a sore elbow.

Ronel Blanco, who threw a no-hitter in his season debut April 1, has pitched well and is 2-0 with a 0.86 ERA in three starts this season. Cristian Javier is also off to a good start, going 2-0 with a 1.54 ERA in four starts, but the team has won just two games not started by those two pitchers.

However, Espada wouldn’t blame the rotation for Houston’s current position.

“It’s been a little bit of a roller coaster how we've played overall,” he said. “One day we get good starting pitching, some days we don’t. The middle relief has been better and sometimes it hasn’t been. So, we’ve just got to put it all together and then play more as a team. And once we start doing that, we’ll be in good shape.”

The good news for the Astros is that Verlander will make his season debut Friday night when they open a series at Washington and Valdez should return soon after him.

“Framber and Justin have been a great part of our success in the last few years,” second baseman Jose Altuve said. “So, it’s always good to have those two guys back helping the team. We trust them and I think it’s going to be good.”

Hader signed a five-year, $95 million contract this offseason to give the Astros a shutdown 7-8-9 combination at the back end of their bullpen with Bryan Abreu and Ryan Pressly. But the five-time All-Star is off to a bumpy start.

He allowed four runs in the ninth inning of a 6-1 loss to the Braves on Monday night and has yielded eight earned runs this season after giving up the same number in 56 1/3 innings for San Diego last year.

He was much better Wednesday when he struck out the side in the ninth before the Astros fell to Atlanta in 10 innings for their third straight loss.

Houston’s offense, led by Altuve, Yordan Alvarez and Kyle Tucker, ranks third in the majors with a .268 batting average and is tied for third with 24 homers this season. But the Astros have struggled with runners in scoring position and often failed to get a big hit in close games.

While many of Houston’s hitters have thrived this season, one notable exception is first baseman José Abreu. The 37-year-old, who is in the second year of a three-year, $58.5 million contract, is hitting 0.78 with just one extra-base hit in 16 games, raising questions about why he remains in the lineup every day.

To make matters worse, his error on a routine ground ball in the eighth inning Wednesday helped the Braves tie the game before they won in extra innings.

Espada brushed off criticism of Abreu and said he knows the 2020 AL MVP can break out of his early slump.

“Because (of) history,” Espada said. “The back of his baseball card. He can do it.”

Though things haven’t gone well for the Astros so far, everyone insists there’s no panic in this team which won its second World Series in 2022.

Altuve added that he doesn’t have to say anything to his teammates during this tough time.

“I think they’ve played enough baseball to know how to control themselves and how to come back to the plan we have, which is winning games,” he said.

The clubhouse was quiet and somber Wednesday after the Astros suffered their third series sweep of the season and second at home. While not panicking about the slow start, this team, which has won at least 90 games in each of the last three seasons, is certainly not happy with its record.

“We need to do everything better,” third baseman Alex Bregman said. “I feel like we’re in a lot of games, but we just haven’t found a way to win them. And good teams find a way to win games. So we need to find a way to win games.”

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