Rockets capture first season win over Pelicans

The Rockets report, brought to you by APG&E: Rockets capture first win of the season over Pelicans 126-123

In a game thought to be uneventful, as shown by the Vegas spread (Houston -12.0), the Rockets hung on to defeat the New Orleans Pelicans in a close one, 126-123. Despite missing Zion Williamson and Jrue Holiday and coming off a back-to-back, the Pelicans pushed Houston to the brink and came very close to coming out on top. For the Rockets, it's become increasingly clear that their defense is a point of concern that needs to be corrected as quickly as possible. Even head coach Mike D'Antoni, who said Thursday that he felt good about where Houston was defensively, changed his tune Saturday night.

"Things have changed," said D'Antoni, chuckling. "We just weren't into them again. I mean we have that tendency, but they were superfast, they kept coming at us. We would go up 10, and then we would relax, but you can't do that. You know, we're not real sharp right now and you have to gut these things out."

The Rockets allowed Brandon Ingram to log one of his best games of his career, chipping in 35 points, 15 rebounds, and 5 assists for the Pelicans on a ridiculous 72.3% true shooting. Houston just didn't have an answer for the 22 year old, nor did they have one for Josh Hart, who scored 23 points of his own on 64.3% true shooting (5 of 12 from three-point range).

What turned it around for the Rockets is the same man who nearly stole them their first win on Thursday, Russell Westbrook. Westbrook's fingerprints were all over Houston's second half turnaround as he pulled in 18 points, 6 assists, and 5 rebounds all in the second half alone.

"It's something I think my team needed from me at the time," Westbrook said after the game. "I was there to be aggressive and find ways to better make an impact on the game."

A storyline that continued on from Thursday's loss is James Harden's poor shooting. Although he scored 28 points, Harden shot 8 for 29 from the field and 2 for 18 from three-point range. Harden is now 3 for 27 for the season from behind the arc.

"He's lost his rhythm a little bit," said D'Antoni. "Nothing to worry about. There's no way it's going to last this way."

Harden expressed a similar lack of concern.

"I'm going to take as many shots as they give me," said Harden. "I was in [the gym] yesterday working on that same shot and this morning on that same shot. Tonight, it just didn't fall."

Star of the game: For the second straight game, Russell Westbrook will take home these honors. Tonight, Westbrook pulled in 28 points, 13 assists, 10 rebounds, and 1 steal on great efficiency (65.4% true shooting). His timing is now there with all of his teammates, including Clint Capela, his pace has dictated what the Rockets are doing offensively, and he has willed Houston through all of their dull moments so far this (short) season.

Honorable mention: Danuel House's development is one of the more under the radar storylines of Houston's season. Not only is he hitting his three-pointers at over a 40% clip - something he carried over from last season - his ball-handling and decision making is really starting to come together. House scored 15 points, grabbed 8 rebounds, and was 4 of 5 from three-point range.

Key moment: Westbrook's dunk in transition capped off what was one hellacious stretch for the 30-year-old point guard.

Up next: Chris Paul returns to the Toyota Center to face his former team on Monday, 7:00 p.m.

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Here's what the data tells us about Bregman. Photo by Joel Auerbach/Getty Images

Alex Bregman had a rough season in 2020 by his standards. He slashed .242/.350/.451 in 42 regular season games. His regular season included a trip to the 10-day IL for a hamstring strain he suffered in mid-August. His surface-level struggles continued in the postseason, where he slashed .220/.316/.300 in 13 games. However, that postseason sample size does include a tough luck game against the Tampa Bay Rays where he went 0-for-5 with five hard hit balls.

All-in-all, 2020 felt like a lost season for Bregman. He never really got going. He got off to a slow start, but he's always been a slow starter. Once he started to pick it up, he strained his hamstring, and he played poorly after returning from the hamstring strain. Then, he started to turn his batted ball quality around in the playoffs, but he hit into a lot of tough luck outs.

Hard Hit % - 33.6%

Barrel % - 3.9%

K% - 14.4%

BB% - 13.3%

Chase % - 18.1%

Bregman comes from the Michael Brantley school of hitters. He has elite plate discipline and elite bat-to-ball skills. This makes Bregman a fairly consistent hitter. That may sound odd considering his 2020 "struggles" but even an extended period of poor performance for him resulted in a .801 OPS and a 122 wRC+. If his valleys are still 22% better than the league average hitter, then that's a pretty reliable producer.

There aren't any alarming trends in Bregman's statistics. Yes, his K% was slightly up, his BB% is slightly down, but it isn't a massive difference in either category. His Chase % was up, but again, 18.1% is elite discipline. The biggest drop was in his Hard Hit%, where he fell from 38% to 33.6%. Even so, his average exit velocity only dropped .4 MPH, so there's not really a catastrophic trend here.

His .254 BABIP (Batting Average on Balls In Play) was low, but he's never put up really high BABIP numbers. In fact, his BABIP has gotten worse every year of his career, from .317 to .311 to .289 to .281 to .254. While his BABIP will likely spike back up next year, it isn't enough to be the difference between the 2019 and 2020 versions of himself. His xBA and xSLG weren't out of whack either. His .256 xBA isn't much better than his .240 AVG, and his .400 xSLG is actually worse than his .451 SLG.

Bregman is as forthcoming with his hitting mechanics, approach, and mental cues as any big leaguer out there. Here is what he had to say about his swing this year. This was a Zoom press conference with the media following the Astros game on September 25th against the Rangers.

Bregman says he wants to hit balls in the air to the pull side and on a line to the opposite field, but in reality, he was hitting flares to the opposite field and hitting them on the ground to the pull side.

The data mostly backs up that claim. In 2019, on balls hit to the pull side, Bregman had an average exit velocity of 90.7 MPH at an average launch angle of 16°, a 40% Hard Hit %, and a 16% HR%. Since Bregman has elite bat-to-ball skills, most of those metrics didn't change. In 2020, his average exit velocity was 90.6, essentially the same as 2019. His Hard Hit % was 42%, a touch better than in 2019. However, his average launch angle dipped from 16° to 11°, which contributed to his HR% dropping all the way to 9%. Bregman hit 47% of his pull side swings on the ground. In 2019, that number was 40%. He absolutely had less production to the pull side in 2020.

The data gets a little hazier going the opposite way when comparing 2019 to 2020, as Bregman actually performed slightly better to the opposite field in 2020 than 2019, but he also only had 20 batted balls to the opposite field all season. Considering the small sample size, it isn't worth diving too deep into the data.

He's right that most of the balls he hit that way were flares. He had an average exit velocity of 83.4 MPH with an average launch angle of 32°, but that's about the same as what he did in 2019. A lot of the statistical drop off comes from balls that were backspun rockets to the pull side in 2019 becoming top spinners or roll overs in 2020.

Bregman also performed horribly against breaking balls in 2020. He batted .150 with a .250 SLG against them in 2020. He had an 84 MPH Average Exit Velocity against them and whiffed 26.5% of the time against them.

It was a far cry from 2019, when he hit .265 with a .588 SLG, 87 MPH average exit velo, and whiffed 18% of the time.

Those numbers lend credence to his statement on his mechanics. It's tough for a hitter to have adjustability against breaking balls if he's blowing out his front side and pulling off of the baseball.

Bregman will spend the offseason working on these mechanical fixes and getting back to the hitter he used to be. If he's consistently hitting the ball in the air to the pull side next year, and he's performing better against breaking balls, then he should be right back in the mix for AL MVP.

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