Micro ball prevails again

The Rockets report, brought to you by APG&E: Rockets defeat Pelicans in Houston 117-109

The Rockets report, brought to you by APG&E: Rockets defeat Pelicans in Houston 117-109

For the second game in a row, the Rockets did not play a player taller than 6'7" for the entirety of regulation and won. For all of the skepticism its' gotten, Mike D'Antoni's new, twisted version of small ball is now 3-0. Houston has essentially forgone the rebounding battle in all games without Clint Capela in favor of forced turnovers and an extra-spaced floor and it's working.

Defensively, the Rockets had no answer for rookie Zion Williamson, who scored 21 points on 8 of 14 shooting from the field and 5 of 7 shooting from the free throw line. The Rockets threw P.J. Tucker, Eric Gordon, Ben McLemore, and James Harden on them, all with little success. Nonetheless, Houston managed to force New Orleans to shoot 10 for 33 beyond the arc and made them turn it over 21 times, which aided in their efforts to win the possession battle.

Houston's success with the small-ball unit shouldn't overshadow how hopeless Houston is long-term without this version of James Harden (40 points, 10 rebounds, 9 assists, and 2 blocks). Harden was attacking mismatches throughout the game and the Pelicans never really found anyone who could consistently stay in front of him. Once they finally did, his shot, which had betrayed him for the month of January, started dropping.

It'll be interesting to see if Clint Capela misses the entire stretch of games before the All-Star break and comes back rested and healthy. Considering the success they've had with it, Houston has no other choice but to continue playing this small-ball unit until teams give them a reason not to.

Star of the game: James Harden had easily his best game of the new year, tallying 40 points, 10 rebounds, 9 assists, and 2 blocks on 12 of 24 shooting from the field and 7-15 shooting from beyond the arc. Harden was assertive from the start of the game to the finish and confidence-wise, he looked like the Harden of old. With a spaced floor, the Pelicans had no one-on-one answer for Harden for the vast majority of the game.

Honorable mention: Russell Westbrook didn't have the same level of efficiency as he did throughout the month, so honorable mention for today goes to Ben McLemore. McLemore chipped in 22 point on 6 of 12 shooting from the field and 4 of 9 shooting from beyond the arc.

Key moment: Defensively, the Rockets really locked in in the fourth quarter, only allowing 16 points from the Pelicans while scoring 25 of their own. They seemed to get their switching down pat and by the fourth quarter, Houston was seamlessly executing their rotations on a swing. By the end of the fourth quarter, the Pelicans were actually leading 93-92, but this fourth quarter surge gave Houston a secure 8-point victory.

Up next: The Rockets finish off their homestand against the Charlotte Hornets at 7:00 p.m. on Tuesday.

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Astros on the hunt. Composite Getty Image.

With the Astros' surge from 10 games out of first place to within two games of Seattle, catching and going past the Mariners has naturally become the top objective. It's no given to happen but it's right there. In the final series ahead of the All-Star break, while the Mariners are in the midst of four games with the lowly Angels, the last two World Series champions renew (un)pleasantries at Minute Maid Park.

The Astros enter the weekend five games ahead of the Rangers. They lead the season series with the reigning champs four wins to three. While the Astros can't quite finish off the Arlingtonians by sweeping them in this three game set, shoving them eight games back (even further back of Seattle and the current Wild Card teams) and clinching the tiebreaker would seem close to a death blow. Taking two out of three would be fine for the Astros. If the Rangers win the series, they are clearly still in the American League West and Wild Card races coming out of the All-Star break.

Last year the Rangers had the best offense in the AL. So far in 2024 they rank a mediocre eighth in runs per game. Nathaniel Lowe is the lone Ranger (get it?!?) regular playing as well as he did last season. Corey Seager has been fine but not at the MVP runner-up level of last year. Marcus Semien is notably down, as is 2023 ALCS Astros-obliterater Adolis Garcia. Stud 2023 rookie Josh Jung has been out with a broken wrist since ex-Astro Phil Maton hit him with a pitch in the fourth game of this season, though fill-in third baseman Josh Smith has been the Rangers' best player. 21-year-old late season phenom Evan Carter largely stunk the first two months this season and has been out since late May with a back injury. Repeating is hard, never harder than it is now. Hence no Major League Baseball has done it since the Yankees won three straight World Series 1998-2000.

Chasing down the Division at a crazy clip

From the abyss of their 7-19 start, the Astros sweep over the Marlins clinched a winning record at the break with them at 49-44. Heading into the Texas matchup the Astros have won at a .627 clip since they were 7-19. A full season of .627 ball wins 101 games. If the Astros win at a .627 rate the rest of the way they'll finish with 92 wins, almost certainly enough to secure a postseason slot and likely enough to win the West. Expecting .627 the rest of the way is ambitious.

With it fairly clear that Lance McCullers is highly unlikely to contribute anything after his latest recovery setback, and Luis Garcia a major question mark, what Justin Verlander has left in 2024 grows more important. With the way the Astros often dissemble or poorly forecast when discussing injuries, for all we know Verlander could be cooked. Inside three weeks to the trade deadline, General Manager Dana Brown can't be thinking a back end of the rotation comprised of Spencer Arrighetti and Jake Bloss should be good enough. The Astros have 66 games to play after the All-Star break, including separate stretches with games on 18 and 16 consecutive days.

All-Star MIAs

Viewership for Tuesday's All-Star game at Globe Life Field in Arlington will be pretty, pretty, pretty low in Houston. One, All-Star Game ratings are pitiful every year compared to where they used to be. Two, the Astros could be down to zero representatives at Tuesday's showcase. Kyle Tucker was rightfully named a reserve but had no shot at playing as he continues the loooong recovery from a bone bruise (or worse) suffered June 3. Being named an All-Star for a ninth time was enough for Jose Altuve. He opts out of spending unnecessary time in Texas Rangers territory citing a sore wrist. This despite Altuve playing four games in a row since sitting out the day after he was plunked and highly likely to play in all three games versus the Rangers this weekend. Yordan Alvarez exiting Wednesday's rout of the Marlins with hip discomfort and then missing Thursday's game seem clear reasons for him to skip, though he has indicated thus far he intends to take part. Yordan is the most essential lineup component to the Astros' hopes of making an eighth straight playoff appearance.

Ronel Blanco should have made the American League squad on performance, but pretty obviously his 10 game illegal substance use suspension was held against him. As it works out, Blanco will pitch Sunday in the last game before the break which would render him unavailable for the All-Star Game anyway. Blanco is eligible to pitch, but given the career high-shattering innings workload Blanco is headed for, no way the Astros want him on the mound Tuesday. Just last year the Astros kept Framber Valdez from pitching in the game.

While waiting, and waiting, and waiting on Tucker's return, the Astros have also been waiting on Chas McCormick to get back to something even faintly resembling the hitter he was last year. McCormick routinely looks lost at the plate. He has four hits (all singles) in his last 32 at bats with his season OPS pitiful at .572. During the break the Astros should seriously weigh sending McCormick to AAA Sugar Land and giving Pedro Leon a try in a job share with Joey Loperfido.

*Catch our weekly Stone Cold ‘Stros podcast. Brandon Strange, Josh Jordan, and I discuss varied Astros topics. The first post for the week generally goes up Monday afternoon (second part released Tuesday) via The SportsMap HOU YouTube channel or listen to episodes in their entirety at Apple, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.

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