Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
Pounding the paint
New Orleans decided early on that they were going to exploit Houston's biggest weakness by relentlessly attacking the paint. With superstar big man Anthony Davis sidelined with a finger injury, Pelicans center Jahlil Okafor seized the opportunity to overpower Houston with his massive size advantage. Okafor finished with 27 points while the Pelicans as a whole dominated points in the paint, 70-40.
Despite being bullied down low, Houston never trailed in the match until the very end of the third quarter. Trailing by as much as 15 points, the Pelicans slowly chipped away at the lead inside, while double-teaming Harden and Paul on screens out on the perimeter. The loss snapped a three-game winning streak for Houston, while conversely snapping a three-game losing streak for the New Orleans.
James Harden was as contained as we had seen him in the past two months - or at least as close as any team could hope to contain him at the moment. Harden entered the final three minutes of the fourth quarter with just 25 points, which put his unreal streak of consecutive 30-point scoring games at risk. A driving layup followed by a 3-point leaner would end up relieving concerns as Harden went on to finish with 35 points en route to his 24th straight 30-point performance.
Rockets Player of the Game
James Harden: 35 points, 11 rebounds, 6 assists, 4 steals
Pelicans Player of the Game
Jahlil Okafor: 27 points, 12 rebounds, 2 blocks, 11-15 shooting
Chris Paul continued to play with a minutes restriction in his second game back from a hamstring injury that sidelined him for 17 games. He logged 26 minutes and finished with 10 points, 9 assists, and 4 rebounds.
Houston begins a four-game road trip Friday against the Denver Nuggets at 9 PM. Houston has won the last two match ups this season.
“Another one!”- DJ Khaled
That's the first thing that came to mind when I heard the news of Tytus Howard being shut down for the season because of a knee injury. They've had more injuries on the offensive line this season than Nick Cannon has Father's Day cards. Almost every member of the offensive line has spent time on the injury report. Howard went down in the same game in which Juice Scruggs was finally on the active roster. He missed the first 10 games due to a hamstring injury. The irony of next man up has never been so in your face.
The other thing that came to mind was the soap opera As the World Turns.
Howard had just signed an extension this offseason. So did Laremy Tunsil and Shaq Mason. They drafted Juice Scruggs, and signed a few guys too. Those moves, along with other holdovers, were expected to fill out the depth chart. Then a rash of injuries struck. At one point, only one of the original five guys expected to start was playing! In fact, they beat the Steelers 30-6 with that backup offensive line!
One can't have the expectation of backups to perform as good as the starters. They're professionals and are on an NFL roster for a reason. However, the talent gap is evident. One thing coaching, technique, and preparation can't cover is lack of ability or talent. The Texans have done a good job of navigating the injury minefield this season. While the Howard injury will hurt, I have faith in the guys there still.
As of this writing, the Texans are in the eighth spot in the AFC playoff picture. The Steelers, Browns, and Colts are all in front of them at the fifth through seventh spots respectfully. They've beaten the Steelers already. They play the Browns on Christmas Eve and their starting quarterback is out for the season. The Colts are relying on the ghost of Gardner Minshew to steer their ship into the last game of the season vs. the Texans with a possible playoff trip on the line. The Broncos and Bills are the two teams immediately behind them. They play the Broncos this weekend. Even though they're on a hot streak, this is the same team that got 70 put on them by the Dolphins. The Bills are the old veteran boxer who still has some skill, but is now a stepping stone for up & comers.
To say this team should still make the playoffs would be an understatement in my opinion. I believe in them and what they have going on more than I believe in the teams I listed above. That includes teams around them in the playoff race that aren't on their schedule. The one thing that scares me a little moving forward is the sustainability of this line. When guys get up in age as athletes, it becomes harder to come back from injuries. The injuries also tend to occur more frequently when it's a knee, foot, ankle, shoulder, elbow, or another body part critical to blocking for C.J. Stroud.
I know they just re-signed three of those guys and drafted one they believe can be a starter, but depth and contingency plans are a way of life in the NFL. We see how important depth was this season. Why not plan ahead? Don't be surprised if the Texans spend valuable draft capital on the offensive line. By valuable, I'm talking about first through third or fourth rounders. Those are prime spots to draft quality offensive lineman. Whether day one starters or quality depth, those are the sweet spots. The only guy on the two deep depth chart for this offensive line that wasn't drafted in one of those rounds was George Fant, who was an undrafted rookie free agent. While I highly doubt they spend any significant free agency dollars on the group, I'm not totally ruling it out.
The bottom line is, this team will be okay on the line for the remainder of this season. The only way that doesn't happen, more injuries. Stroud is clearly the franchise guy. Protecting that investment is a top priority. I don't care about a number one receiver, or a stud stable or singular running back if the quarterback won't have time to get them the ball. If the pilot can't fly the plane, you know what happens. So making sure he's happy, healthy, and has a great crew is of the utmost importance.