Not pretty, but it counts

The Rockets report, brought to you by APG&E: Rockets defeat Nets in Houston 108-98

The Rockets report, brought to you by APG&E: Rockets defeat Nets in Houston 108-98

If you were looking for the Rockets to dissect a .500 team with a buzzer-to-buzzer blowout, this wasn't the game. However, if you were looking for Houston to bounce back from their ugly loss against Golden State on Christmas, at the very least, you got that.

"It wasn't pretty," said Mike D'Antoni after the game. "We got some things we definitely got to get better at."

It wasn't that Houston was bad tonight, but their effort was inconsistent to say the least. The Rockets began the game on fire on both ends, taking a 42-20 lead to end the first quarter. However, as they continued to miss shots, their effort started to taper off.

Westbrook had a lot to do with Houston's early lead, but unfortunately for Houston, he was also responsible for a lot of the missed shots. In the first quarter, Westbrook scored 14 points on 7 of 9 shooting, 6 of those 7 field goals coming from mid-range. However, those same shots didn't fall for the rest of the game as Westbrook was 4 of 19 from the field for the rest of the game.

As the Nets got creative against Harden, shooters like P.J. Tucker (0 for 5 from three-point range), Danuel House (2 of 10 from three-point range), and Ben McLemore (1 of 6 from three-point range) could not take advantage of the open looks they were receiving, leaving an opening for the Nets to climb back into the game.

"We had a lot of open opportunities that we just didn't make," said Harden. "Tuck had some, D-House had some, Ben had some. If we make those shots, it's a different ball game earlier."

In Houston's defense, they were also without Clint Capela (right heel contusion) and Eric Gordon (right knee arthroscopy) which disrupted their floor spacing tonight. Although the Rockets will be without Russell Westbrook (scheduled to miss the second half of this back-to-back), Gordon will return to the rotation and give Houston a fresh body and floor spacing element that they've been lacking.

"It's another shooter and another ball handler," said Harden on Gordon's pending return. "A guy that can be aggressive and make plays. It's a little of what we're missing."

Star of the game: The Nets threw various defenses at James Harden including single man-to-man coverage, a trap, and box and one. However, it was ultimately fruitless as Harden ended the game with 44 points, 10 rebounds, 6 assists, 3 blocks, and a steal on 17 of 27 shooting from the field and 6 of 10 shooting from three-point range. Coming off a game in which he was limited to 24 points, Harden was quite simply, brilliant.

Honorable mention: After being fairly quiet for a week, Austin Rivers had one of his better games of the year, scoring 14 points on 5 of 12 shooting from the field and 4 of 9 shooting from three-point range. Rivers hit a couple of key shots when the Rockets allowed the Nets to get back into the game and was good defensively tonight.

Key moment: After the Nets took a 90-89 lead with 8:55 remaining in the 4th quarter, Houston battled back with an 18-8 run of their own to end the 4th quarter with James Harden scoring or assisting on 9 of those points.

Up next: The Rockets travel to New Orleans at 7:00 p.m. tomorrow to play the Pelicans.

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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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