Too little too late

The Rockets report, brought to you by APG&E: Rockets fall to Knicks in New York 125-123

If the first three quarters of a basketball game didn't count, you'd think the Rockets played pretty well tonight. Unfortunately for Houston, they do and their lackadaisical effort was too much to overcome late in this one. Through three quarters, the Rockets were out-rebounded 47 to 25, gave up 56 points in the paint, and also forfeited 16 second chance points. This is indicative of the larger effort issues the Rockets had tonight and despite fourth quarter heroics from Russell Westbrook (10 points, 4 of 6 shooting from the field, 4 rebounds, and 2 assists), Houston dug themselves in a hole even they couldn't claw themselves out of.

"It's good that we have fight, that we never hang up," said Westbrook after the game. "But like I said, we should've never put ourselves in that position because it takes a lot of energy to fight back, especially on the road. You just put yourself in a tough position to come back."

The Rockets had absolutely no answer for the Knicks frontcourt who feasted on the offensive glass (20 offensive rebounds and 21 second chance points). Julius Randle and bobby Portis had a combined 31 points, 21 rebounds, and 3 blocks on 11 of 24 shooting from the field. Rookie RJ Barrett also exploded for one of his best nights of the season, logging 27 points, 5 rebounds, and 4 assists on 10 of 18 shooting from the field and 3 of 8 shooting from three-point range. The Knicks as a whole shot 12 of 20 from three-point range (40% - well above their average). It was just an onslaught of uncontested looks and the Rockets just got buried because of it.

Star of the game: Although James Harden was technically the more efficient player tonight, Russell Westbrook just felt much more impactful, on a night where he was a -9 in the box score, ironically. Westbrook only tallied 24 points, 9 rebounds, and 3 assists on 54.3% true shooting, but his relentless attack kept Houston in the game until the bitter end and nearly got Houston to overtime in the final possession of the game.

Honorable mention: If you just looked at the box score, you'd think James Harden would be a shoe-in for star of the game, but his defensive intensity to start the game and his late-game execution likely cost Houston the game. The blown layup was indicative of a larger malaise that followed Harden tonight. He did tally 35 points, 8 assists, 4 steals, and 2 rebounds on 19 shots which gets you an automatic honorable mention a the very least. Westbrook just felt more impactful in a way that's hard to quantify if you weren't watching this game.

Key moment: You never want to isolate this down to a single moment, because there are several reasons that teams lose basketball games, but James Harden missed a point-blank layup that would have given Houston the lead with 30 seconds remaining. Houston didn't lose this game because of this blown layup - they lost in in the first three quarters. After Westbrook courageously kept Houston in the game in the final two minutes, it's just an image that will stick with many for this game.

Up next: The Rockets return to Houston at 8:00 p.m. on Thursday to take on the Los Angeles Clippers.

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The numbers show a concerning trend. Composite image by Brandon Strange

Michael Brantley signed a two-year, $30M deal with the Houston Astros prior to 2019 to little fanfare. The then 32 year-old was coming off of yet another injury riddled season with the Cleveland Indians, and the signing was seen as a safe gamble (if there is such a thing). Brantley would produce if healthy, but would he ever be healthy?

Brantley went on to have two of the healthiest seasons of his career, putting up big numbers for the Astros. Across two seasons, Brantley slashed .309/.370/.497 with a 134 wRC+. The Astros got the best version of Brantley, who had slashed .295/.351/.430 with a 114 wRC+ during his tenure with the Indians.

Brantley is set to hit the market once again, and the Astros face a couple of questions. One, is Brantley worth bringing back? Two, is Brantley worth a qualifying offer?

Hard Hit % - 37.3%

Barrel % - 4.9%

K % - 15%

BB % - 9.1%

Chase % - 20.1%

(All numbers from 2020)

Brantley's greatest skill is controlling the strike zone. He forces pitchers to come to him, and he's only getting better at it. His chase % was the best of his career, and it was 6% better than his 26% mark in 2019. Brantley was t-19th in MLB in chase % with Ronald Acuña Jr. and Yasmani Grandal. Brantley combines this enviable level of plate discipline with another enviable trait: he doesn't swing and miss. His 16.4% whiff % was in the 93rd percentile of MLB. By comparison, Acuña and Grandal were in the 29th and 26th percentiles respectively. Those two don't chase often because they keyhole one spot that they know they can drive. Brantley forces pitchers to come in the zone similar to those two, but he usually doesn't swing and miss when the pitchers do come to him.

However, there are some alarming trends for a hitter now well onto the wrong side of 30.

His 15% K% was the highest it's been since 2011, when he was a 24-year-old in his first full big league season. It was a 4.6% increase in K% over last season. Brantley's 16% whiff % is far and away the worst it's been in his career, and it's 5.6% worse than it was in 2019. That 5.6% is the difference between swinging-and-missing the second least in MLB and swinging-and-missing the 11th least. That's a steep drop over one season. Remember, Brantley chased pitches outside the zone the least he ever had in his career. That increase in whiff % mostly came on strikes. His contact % on strikes dropped 4.8% from 2019.

A big indicator of age is the inability to catch up with the fastball. Brantley's 13.2% whiff rate against fastballs in 2020 was the worst it's been in his career. The second worst? 7.5% back in 2011. On the surface, Brantley performed fine on fastballs in 2020. He batted .295 with a .438 SLG against them. But it gets a little uglier just one level deeper. Brantley's xBA on fastballs was .242. His xSLG was .410.

Compared to his 2019 performance against fastballs, it was quite the downturn. Brantley batted .320 against fastballs in 2019 with a .311 xBA. He slugged .501 with a xSLG of .506. Lastly, Brantley had an 89.3 average exit velocity on fastballs in 2019 compared to 87.4 in 2020. The downturn in fastball productivity is alarming.

Brantley performed great against breaking balls and offspeed pitches in 2020, but once pitchers realize that he can't stay on the fastball like he used to, Brantley will be setup for failure, not success.

Brantley doesn't run well either. His average sprint speed of 26.2 ft/s was in the 34th percentile in MLB. Brantley did perform well defensively by nearly every metric, but he was in the 39th percentile in outfielder jump. He really can't afford a downturn defensively, and with Yordan Alvarez returning as the full time DH next season, they won't have the ability to give Brantley the occasional day off his legs at DH

The qualifying offer has been set at $18.9M for the 2020 offseason. Considering Houston's lack of draft picks due to their punishment for technological sign-stealing, recouping some of that draft capital would be helpful for the club. $18.9M would represent a $3.9M raise for Brantley, which is exactly the price of not being able to bring back Brad Peacock.

It's unlikely that Brantley will regress so quickly that he'll be unplayable in 2021. He will likely be a productive ballplayer. Considering that the Astros can afford to pay the raise in salary if he accepts the qualifying offer, it is worth giving it to him. If he declines the QO, however, it isn't worth giving him a multi-year deal. There are too many signs of regression, and anything more than one year is a risk. If Brantley demands a multi-year deal, the Astros should let him walk and take the draft pick compensation.

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