JOEL BLANK

Through three games, Rockets defense is invisible

Mike D'Antoni is looking for answers. Harry How/Getty Images

So Saturday night we had "Loogie Nights" in Los Angeles and a fight involving two of the best point guards of our generation in Chris Paul and Rajon Rondo. It all started when Lakers string bean Brandon Ingram decided to push James Harden after a foul and ended with Ingram rushing the pile and throwing a haymaker at the closest red jersey he could find. The end result was suspensions as Ingram got four games, Rondo three games and Paul two games. What this fight did for Rockets fans was distract them from what has been a much bigger pain for the team than any fight or suspension. The real wound rearing its ugly head for Houston early this season is the team' awful defense and inability to stir rup even the slightest desire to stop their opponent.

If you are a basketball junkie like me, it's pretty easy to see where the Rockets shortcomings lie. The defense is a seive and opposing players run through it like tap water through a strainer. The team seems to think the best defensive strategy is outscore the other team and hope they don’t need a stop or get into a tight game late in crunch time. New Orleans took the Rockets to the woodshed by scoring inside, outside and on the break as they stunned the opening night crowd at Toyota Center. In Game 2 the Lakers were made to look like a well oiled machine that could get buckets anywhere and everywhere on the court, instead of a totally new group of players including several misfits from other squads.

In Game 3 the H-town 5 made this years version of the Clippers look like the squad that had CP3, Blake Griffin, Reddick, Crawford and company, instead of the bunch of recycled veterans and youthful exuberance that comprise this seasons team. The Clippers scored at will and attacked the paint throughout the game on their way to the upset victory that sent Houston home 1-2.

There is no team defense, rotating, helping or much switching. There is a ton of finger pointing and head shaking as everyone stands around and watches the layup line locomotive go steaming by. It has to change and fast if this team truly hopes to return to the Western Conference Finals and compete for an NBA title.

Ever since Mike D' Antoni took over the team, all of Red Nation knows their team can score with anyone in the league. Adding Carmelo Anthony to an already high powered offense led everyone to believe the scoring would possibly go up a season ago. The concern started to surface started back in July when Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute departed via free agency. Not a big loss most people said, because they weren't big contributors on offense and each fizzled out in the postseason. Ariza played steady ball all year and over his tenure with Houston, until Game 7 against Golden State. It was then that he joined the rest of his Rockets squad in losing their 3 point shot at the most important moments of the season. Mbah a Moute was MIA the entire postseason after an underrated regular season that had him deeply entrenched in a solid Rockets rotation. He was a spot starter that knew his role and stuck to it and that meant he went all out of defense. What everyone is missing here is that the two players were above average on-ball defenders and key cogs in Jeff Bzdelik's defensive unit that helped to shut down opponents and close out games.They were a top 6 defensive team that could get stops, grab rebounds and win games by doing more than putting the ball in the hoop. Speaking of Bzdelik, fans also are sleeping on how important he was in orchestrating one of the better team defenses in all of the NBA. He got his players to buy in and sell out on the defensive end and that was a huge accomplishment, considering the fact that James Harden and others had a 25 letter alphabet with no "D" in it before the coach arrived in Houston.   

Can it change? The answer is yes. Is there plenty of time to figure it out? Of course there is. Can Roy Rodgers get setted in as the new Defensive Coordinator and get his players to give it their all and commit to the teachings that he will subject them to? They better and they better start soon. Of course Daryl Morey is always tinkering with his team and can get on his friends and family plan of NBA GM's to try and orchestrate a deal or two that can upgrade their roster and its ability to get some stops, but not everyone has the kind of help they need and others aren't inclined to assist. Regardless of where we go from here, the fact is, the Rockets aren’t going anywhere in late June, let alone late May if they don't recognize the problem and start working on the toughness it's going to take to fix it. Toughness that starts in the middle of your chest and not at the end of a knockout punch.

 

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Houston's bats have a hot night

Astros clobber Rangers to win series opener

Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

After dropping two of three in Seattle, the Astros entered the regular season's final series still waiting to clinch their playoff berth. Luckily their matchup favored them, with four games against the 19-37 Rangers, which they have done well against in recent years. Here are highlights from the opener:

Final Score: Astros 12, Rangers 4.

Record: 29-28, second in the AL West.

Winning pitcher: Cristian Javier (5-2, 3.48 ERA).

Losing pitcher: Lance Lynn (6-3, 3.32 ERA).

Astros put up 10 on Lynn 

Houston had no trouble getting acquainted with the Rangers' new stadium, jumping out to an early lead in the top of the first inning. After a lengthy at-bat against Lance Lynn, Jose Altuve reached on a one-out single, then scored from first on a two-out RBI-triple by Alex Bregman. They'd double their lead in the next at-bat on an error, making it 2-0.

They extended that lead even more in the next inning, getting back-to-back singles to start the inning to set up a big three-run dinger by George Springer to straightaway center-field to make it 5-0. Bregman added two more RBI to his night in the top of the fifth, capitalizing on a leadoff single by Michael Brantley by hitting a two-run homer to make it a 7-0 lead. Altuve would push the total to double-digits in the top of the sixth, lifting a three-run home run of his own to make it a 10- lead.

Javier with a decent start, bullpen closes out the win

Meanwhile, Cristian Javier was doing well on the mound against the Rangers. He allowed just three baserunners through the first five innings, a double in the first, a hit batter in the second, and a single in the fifth. He would falter a bit in the bottom of the sixth, allowing a leadoff single then a two-run homer, then later in the inning a sac fly, making it 10-3 before Houston would turn to their bullpen. Javier's final line: 5.2 IP, 5 H, 3 R, 3 ER, 1 BB, 6 K, 1 HR, 95 TP.

Luis Garcia would get the final out of the sixth then returned for the bottom of the seventh, allowing a leadoff double that would score on a two-out RBI-double, making it a six-run game before Garcia finished the frame. Brooks Raley was the next reliever and notched two strikeouts in a 1-2-3 inning in the eighth.

Josh Reddick gave Houston two more insurance runs, joining the home run barrage with a two-run homer in the top of the inning to make it 12-4 going to the bottom half. Brandon Bielak was given a low-leverage opportunity to throw in the bottom of the ninth. He erased a two-out double for a scoreless inning to wrap up the lopsided win, lowering Houston's magic number to 1.

Up Next: The second game of this four-game set between Houston and Texas will start Friday at 7:05 PM Central at Globe Life Field. The pitching battle will be Kyle Cody (1-1, 1.53 ERA) for the Rangers and Jose Urquidy (1-1, 2.78 ERA) for the Astros.

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