THE PALLILOG

The timing of Russell Westbrook's return should come down to this

Composite image by Jack Brame.

Despite Russell Westbrook's absence from the lineup the Rockets have had a fantastic start to their postseason, routing Oklahoma City in game one and then blowing apart a close game two in the fourth quarter. The work isn't done but the Rockets' 17-0 final quarter blitz Thursday had the look of basketball heart surgery. As in cutting out the Thunder's heart. Momentum can be very fickle, but the Rockets winning game two by 13 points when James Harden had a lousy shooting game while Eric Gordon was even worse? Very ominous for OKC. That the Rockets have committed just seven turnovers in each of the first two games is phenomenal.

Thunder Head Coach Billy Donovan greased the skids for his team's game two demise with a ridiculous lineup for the first four and a half minutes of the fourth quarter. Having Abdel Nader and Darius Bazley in the game while both Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Danilo Gallinari sat? Billy D was Billy Dunce on that one. The Rockets ripped off 15 straight points before Donovan subbed. Game over.

One certainly should not assume the series is over, but the Rockets do gain some luxury to pad Westbrook's quad recovery time. Maybe he sits the whole first round. At this point I wouldn't play him in this series until or unless the Thunder wins a game at the earliest.

With the Rockets likely to advance, the plot is definitely thicker than one would have imagined a month ago with regard to who wins the 1 vs. 8 matchup that would produce the Rockets' second round opponent. That the Lakers crushed the Trail Blazers to square that best-of-seven at one win apiece doesn't mean the Lakers have restored order and roll the rest of the way. Before the shutdown the Lakers were head and shoulders best in the west. Since resumption in the "bubble" they had been very shaky until Thursday. That they lacked motivation for the eight seeding games is legit. So is that their outside shooting has stunk. The Blazers are good and dangerous though in the end LeBron James and Anthony Davis should still get the Lakers through to round two.

Going streaking

Cap tip to the Astros as they ride an eight game winning streak into San Diego this weekend. They haven't beaten quality teams (Giants, Mariners, Rockies) but eight straight is eight straight, especially given their ever-growing injury toll. What a bummer losing Yordan Alvarez and Alex Bregman in the same week. The already gimpy-kneed Alvarez lasted two games before a patellar tendon tear ended his 2020 season. Yordan's upside remains David Ortiz-esque, but bum knees at 23 is just sad. Bregman is a short term loss but the best Astro is sidelined 10 days minimum. Bregman will be out through some if not all of next weekend's big Astros-A's series.

The Padres are led by emerging superstar shortstop Fernando Tatis Jr. who leads Major League Baseball with 12 home runs and 29 runs batted in over the Padres' 27 games. If a draft of all current leaguers were held, Tatis might be the first pick. Think what Carlos Correa was when he arrived in the Major Leagues. Now think better. Like Correa, Tatis got to the bigs as a 20-year-old. Carlos won American League Rookie of the Year in 2015. Tatis was having a superior debut season before having that season ended by a back injury in mid-August. Injuries have short circuited Correa's expected rise to superstardom. Anyone who likes baseball should root for both Correa and Tatis Jr. to stay in peak health going forward. Quirky stat, the Padres have hit a grand slam in each of their last four games. That's a first in MLB history.

There's no place like Denver for a hitter or hitters to get going. It's an offensive freak show environment. The Rockies at home last season hit .300 as a team. Everywhere else they hit .230. In 2018: .287 at home, .225 on the road. 2017: .298 at mile high altitude, .248 on the road. You get the idea. So that the Astros scored 23 runs in two games there isn't a big deal beyond the big deal that they won both games. Jose Altuve certainly wasn't complaining. His batting average had sagged to a you have to be kidding me .163 before four hits in his last seven at bats at Coors Field. Altuve is now at .190. That he gets going for real takes on added importance in Bregman's absence.

Buzzer Beaters:

1. With games galore that matter going on who misses NFL preseason games whatsoever?

2. Throw out the mere five games he played this season and Stephen Curry's worst season three point percentage is better than Damian Lillard's best season percentage.

3. Worst aches: Bronze-tooth Silver-head Gold-heart

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Life after Correa may not be the worst thing. Composite image by Jack Brame.

Carlos Correa is having a damn good year. The Astros shortstop is hitting .285 with 24 homers, 87 RBI, 72 walks, .862 OPS, a 7.2 WAR, and a .981 fielding percentage. In any other year, those would be numbers worthy of being in the mix for AL MVP (if it weren't for that dastardly Shohei Otani). Correa is also in a contract year. He and the Astros were far enough apart that the season started and he's held true to not wanting to negotiate midseason.

The offers of six years for $120 million and five years for $125 million were both rejected by he and his camp. They're seeking something much longer and for more money on the annual average. With the team unwilling to meet those demands, it seems as if the team and the player are headed for a split.

Lots of Astros fans are not happy with the prospect of Correa leaving via free agency. Some think the team isn't doing enough and should pony up to bring him back. Some feel Correa should take what they're offering because it's a fair deal that'll allow the team to sign other players. Then, there's that small band of us that are totally okay with him leaving.

One of the main reasons I'm okay with him leaving is the players the team still has under control that are potential replacements. Aledmys Diaz and Pedro Leon are the first two guys that come to mind. Diaz is a 31-year-old vet who's stepped up when he's called upon. He can slide over to third and allow Alex Bregman to play shortstop. Leon is the team's 23-year-old hot prospect who signed as an outfielder that the team has been trying to turn into a shortstop. If Correa were to leave, he could instantly plug the hole Carlos would leave behind. Either of those options lead to my next point of being okay with Correa leaving which is to...

...allocate that money elsewhere. Whether it's signing a replacement (at short or third), or boosting the pitching staff, I'll be fine as long as it's money well spent. Signing a shortstop or third baseman would determine where Bregman would be playing. If said player takes significantly less than Correa and fills 70-80% of his offensive shoes, it'll be worth it. Others will have to step it up. If they find a deal on a top of the rotation starting pitcher, that would be ideal as well. As I stated a couple of weeks ago, this team has employed a six-man rotation, but doesn't have a true ace. Spending anywhere from $20-30 million a year on a top-notch pitcher to add to the staff would bolster this staff in more ways than one. It'll finally give them the ace they lack, plus it'll bump all the young talent (still under team control) down a peg creating depth and perhaps even creating bullpen depth.

The only way any of this works is if Correa isn't back. Zack Greinke and Justin Verlander's money comes off the books also. Freeing up that much payroll and not re-appropriating those resources to ensure this team stays in contention would be a first degree felony in sports court. I don't think Jim Crane wants that for this team. I for sure don't think James Click wants that as his legacy. Let's sit back and watch how the organization maneuvers this offseason and pray they get it right.


Editor's note: If you want to read the other side of the argument, check out Ken Hoffman's piece from Tuesday.

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