Harden and Paul are Leaders, EG and PJ are the Reasons they can be Contenders

Tucker and Gordon keys to winning Game 4, series

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Chris Paul and James HardenTim Warren/Getty Images

We all know that James Harden and Chris Paul are the two best players on this Rockets team. The Beard is a perennial MVP candidate in the NBA seemingly every year and CP3 is one of the greatest point guards ever to play the game. Harden gets most of the attention and deservedly so, and Paul is next in line when it comes to bigtime players that are difference makers, especially in the postseason. The dynamic duo is the reason this squad has evened the series with the Warriors and have a legitimate shot to dethrone the champs. With all that said, this Rockets ship looked like it was stuck in the mud after two games, as questions swirled about who could be counted on to step up and step in to help these two stars compete against Golden State? The answer to that question has been two-fold as Eric Gordon and PJ Tucker have been the heroes that H-town desperately needed to complement their shining stars.

Joel Blank

PJ Tucker has always been the man with a plan to do the majority of the dirty work for Houston. He constantly is charged with guarding the best player on the other team, including Kevin Durant in this series. He also is the heart and soul of the squad when it comes to grit, determination, and effort. He is physical and along with Nene are the two enforcers and "big brothers" that protect and stand up for the rest of the Rockets. Tucker is also a huge part of the H-town air assault when it comes to taking and making open three-point shots when Harden and Paul get double teamed and they kick the ball out to the perimeter. Tucker was 3 for 6 from downtown, made 50% of his shots and finished with 17 points in Game 4 when the Rockets were desperate for their supporting cast to score more. In this series, PJ has stepped it up and taken his game up a notch to be a catalyst to everything the team has been able to do.

Photo: Houston Rockets facebook

The Rockets lacked energy through the first two games and needed a spark to sacrifice his body and get extra possessions, Tucker has stepped up and done so in a big way. His offensive rebounds and tipped balls led to valuable second-chance opportunities in Game 4 and his staunch defensive effort on the much taller, quicker Durant was a key to another frustrating offensive night for the most potent offensive team in the league. The signal caller for the Rockets defense was able to provide stops, rotate and pressure the Warriors all-stars both inside and out and play a huge roll in slowing down the "Dubs" while allowing Red Nation to run. Look at the tape and almost every key defensive play and it's almost guaranteed PJ is somewhere in the middle of the play.

James Harden against the WarriorsRockets.com

Offensively the Rockets are a good team when Harden is leading the way and Paul is directing traffic and making the right decisions with the ball to get open shots and easy baskets. Just get them the ball and get out of the way and the Rockets would get a win in the regular season. Things are different in the playoffs and the postseason is a different animal. Sure, harden and Paul are beasts, but they needed more help to compete and beat a high powered squad like the Warriors.

Eric GordonJonathan Daniel

Enter Eric Gordon and his arsenal of ways he can beat you with the ball and watch as this Houston team soared right back into the series. He is averaging 23 points per game in the series and has forced the Warriors to scheme for him and pay attention to him every time Houston has the ball. He has made the dynamic duo into a fearsome threesome when H-town has the ball. That trifecta of EG, CP3 and the Beard take this team to a contending level when he joins the fray is a positive way. When Gordon scores 20 points or more he turns a good team into a great team, a playoff team into a contender. offensively he has been grossly underrated and underappreciated. He has worn Steph Curry down by being physical with him as much as the rules allow and beating him up on the perimeter and pushing him through screens. He is the X-Factor offensively that makes the Rockets hard to beat and Houston has to have him continue to come up huge and fill up the hoop and the stat sheet if they plan on stealing a game in Oakland and winning this massive series that will almost assuredly determine who represents the Western Conference in this years NBA Finals.

Joel Blank

We all know that Mike D' Antoni's rotation shrinks come playoff time and minutes are hard to come by for the reserves. They have struggled all year to find the right mix of complimnetary players to add value to his squad. Sure they have found some valuable players in the buyout market and added some youth that can play their way. At the end of the day, they need to be players the coach can trust and have confidence in. That's why you don't see D'Antoni going much deeper than Austin Rivers and a few spot minutes for Nene and Gerald Green in this post season. For the Rockets to have a shot at winning 2 of the nest 3 against Golden State and win the series, they are going to need more huge games from PJ Tucker and Eric Gordon and valuable spot minutes from the reserves. It's not about second units in the playoffs, it's all about complementary pieces and role players taking their game to another level to allow their team to step up and accomplish big things.

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Even though the Astros have been in the last five postseasons and made it to the World Series in three of those, they still have some new faces on the roster this year that will be participating in their first playoff games. Three of them, in particular, could have impactful enough parts to play that they shape the entire fortune of the team in these playoffs.

Trey Mancini

Although Baltimore was in the hunt until the last weeks of the season in 2022, it took getting traded to the Astros for Trey Mancini to finally get his first taste of playoff baseball. Mancini debuted in 2016, and while his numbers have been frustrating since joining his new team, he is still a powerful slugger whom the Astros should use at times in the ALDS and beyond.

Whether they need to spell Yuli Gurriel at first or use him in the outfield, Mancini will be a good weapon for the Astros, especially if he can break out of his recent funk and string together some good at-bats. Before the trade, he was batting .268, a number much more in line with his career numbers than the low .176 he had with the Astros. With the time off between the final regular season game and his first plate appearance in the playoffs, I'd expect he'll have found a way to put the slump behind him and come through with some key hits.

Hunter Brown

One of the most pleasant surprises the Astros had this year was seeing the quality they could get out of Hunter Brown from day one in the majors. After being touted as the next Justin Verlander after his six-inning shutout start in his debut, Brown made another quality start before transitioning to the bullpen.

Now, the big caveat here is that Brown actually makes the ALDS roster, which, with Houston's depth, puts a good but challenging task in front of them to assemble the proper ratio of position players to pitchers, and within the pitchers, starters to relievers. Assuming Brown makes the cut, he could be a big difference-maker.

Brown has only allowed two hits and three walks in his last three appearances, most recently logging 2.1 innings of scoreless work to lower his ERA to 0.89. He has electric stuff and would be a great asset to have in a game where maybe one of Houston's starters can't make it past a few innings, and the Astros need someone to gap between them and the other relievers.

Jeremy Peña

One first-timer that we don't have to speculate about making the roster or getting plenty of playing time is Jeremy Peña. He'll be at shortstop and probably batting second behind Jose Altuve in the lineup. Entering the year with high expectations to take over for Carlos Correa, Peña put together an outstanding rookie campaign, including launching 22 home runs, matching Correa's rookie number, and coming in first amongst AL shortstops in defensive runs saved.

One area it may take him and others combined to replace Correa is going to the plate with the game on the line and coming through in the clutch. If Peña can come up with one of those "it's my time" moments in the 2022 postseason, he'll have completed the total takeover. In any case, it will be fun to see how the rookie does his first time on the biggest stage.

One of the most well-rounded teams in the league this year, and now in the playoffs, Houston has plenty of veteran experience that will make them a tough out in any series. Add in these three players, and it shows why the Astros are coming out ahead in most people's predictions.

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