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

Tucker and Gordon keys to winning Game 4, series

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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How significant Astros spring training revelation highlights even more reasons for optimism

The Houston Astros had a very successful season in 2023 which led them back to the ALCS for the seventh-straight season, but despite another deep playoff run, their pitching did regress from the prior year.

While many would point to their historic bullpen in 2022 and say they had nowhere to go but down, that doesn't paint the full picture. It was the starting rotation that really fell off in 2023. Justin Verlander, Framber Valdez, Cristian Javier, Hunter Brown, and Jose Urquidy all saw a spike in their ERAs from the previous season.

According to a recent report from The Athletic's Chandler Rome, we might have an explanation for Jose Urquidy's down year.

The Astros and Urquidy believe he was tipping his pitches. Which would explain why the slugging percentage against his fastball jumped from .482 in 2022 to .632 in 2023.

When hitters know a pitcher is tipping, they often start hunting fastballs. Also, his strikeout percentage went down last year and his walks went way up. He had 2 more walks per nine innings in 2023 than he had in 2021.

Part of that could be him aiming for corners and refusing to give in to hitters because his fastball wasn't performing up to expectations.

His WHIP in 2023 really jumped off the page as well. He finished with a WHIP over 1.4. While his career WHIP is 1.143. That's a huge difference.

Back to the big picture

Until last season, Urquidy never finished with an ERA over 3.95. He recorded a 5.29 ERA last year. So when we factor in his shoulder injury that cost him three months of the season, and the fact he was tipping pitches, we believe he's in store for a bounce-back season.

And the Astros are going to need him, especially with Justin Verlander and JP France possibly not being available for the start of the season.

What will the rotation look like early on?

The Astros haven't ruled Verlander out yet, so he could be ready to go. But if not, and we base this off what we saw last season. The rotation will likely include Valdez, Javier, Brown, Urquidy, Ronel Blanco, and Brandon Bielak.

Don't miss the video above for the full discussion!

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