Are the Rockets title contenders?

Here's where the Rockets stand with the NBA returning

Composite photo by Brandon Strange

Since the Rockets were given four months off because of COVID-19, this allowed the team to rest. This was basically a new team from last season. Players like Westbrook and Covington were still trying to get adjusted to the offense in Houston. Covington was averaging 12.8 PPG and Westbrook was averaging 27.5 PPG before the season came to a halt.

Another important factor is Eric Gordon and James Harden have lost a tremendous amount of weight. This will allow them to be more mobile on the court. Both players have put on a good amount of muscle in their careers in Houston. Harden has not been this slim since playing for the Thunder and his early days with the Rockets. When Harden was slimmer, he was much more athletic. Meaning his vertical was higher, and he was able to get down the court much faster.

The Rockets want to be much faster and in better shape for an eight-game regular season. Since it looks like Adam Sliver, NBA Commissioner, still wants to the finish the NBA season. This will allow teams below or at .500 to still make the playoffs.

Now the Rockets chances at the NBA Finals are still high because of Harden and Westbrook. These two started to click before COVID-19 shut the season down. The Rockets main two road blocks to the NBA Finals are the Los Angeles Clippers and Lakers. Against both opponents they are a combined 3-3.

When it comes to playing the Lakers, the Rockets have shown their strengths and weakness. How the Rockets can beat the Lakers is beating them down the court with their quickness and perimeter shooting. The Lakers were not able to keep up with the Rockets small-ball rotation because of their big man. The Rockets were able to spread out Anthony Davis and JaVale McGee to the corners. This allowed Westbrook and Harden to attack the basket without seeing any rim protectors. When the Rockets can attack the basket, this allows shooters like Eric Gordon to get open. This can also affect the Lakers rebounding abilities as well.

Now, what could hurt the Rockets is when they are not making their shots. The Lakers could take advantage of the Rockets small-ball rotation by allowing Davis to post up P.J. Tucker more often. That team feeds off of a great defense because they are top five in that category.

The Clippers would be more of a problem than the Lakers because they match up better. Even though the Clippers do not have a small-ball rotation when it comes to their starting five, Doc Rivers can create one throughout the game. They have an amazing backcourt made of scoring and defense. The reason for that is because of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. The Clippers also have one of the best sixth men of all-time, Lou Williams. But we can not forget about Westbrook's favorite friend, Patrick Beverley. Beverley is a two-time member of the all-defensive team in the NBA. Finally, another player that can give the Rockets problems is Montrezl Harrell.

The Rockets number one issue with the Clippers is maintaining the lead. Changing scores with the Clippers is a bad situation. They are the best at slowing the game down and playing great defense. The Clippers are good at getting everybody involved on the court. That is when they are the most dangerous.

The way the Rockets can beat the Clippers is by becoming the better team. Meaning, Harden and Westbrook must be perfect. It is also important that the Rockets' supporting cast is helpful. When the whole team can score, the Rockets become more dangerous. The Clippers did dismantle the Rockets' small-ball rotation the last time they played against each other, and the last time the Rockets beat the Clippers, was when they still had Clint Capela. The Rockets are 2-2 against the Clippers.

The best way to beat the Clippers is with fast breaks and pace. Not many teams can keep up with the Rockets. If the Rockets play fast, it becomes extremely hard for teams like the Lakers and Clippers to keep up. That is how the Rockets can make it to the Finals.

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The Astros have JV this year, and Yankee Stadium will be packed. Composite image by Jack Brame.

How’s that New York, New York song go, if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere? The AL West leading Houstonians are about to find out just where they stand among baseball’s elite. The Astros start a 4-game series tonight against the AL East first-place Yankees at Yankee Stadium, then a 2-game set against the NL East first-place Mets at Citi Field, then back home for a single game against the Yankees.

New York, New York indeed. And you can throw another New York in there for an encore.

When the dust clears, the Astros could be the best team in baseball or merely a good, solid team … just not the Yankees in the American League. Or the Mets in the National League.

The Yankees have the top record in the AL East, 51-18, a dozen games ahead the second-place Blue Jays. The Mets, even after dropping two to the Astros this week at Minute Maid Park, stand at 45-26, 4.5 games up on the Braves.

The Yankees and Mets have the two best records in the Major Leagues, with the Astros knocking on the door at 43-25.

It’s not yet July, but the next seven games could be the most important, interesting stretch of 2022 for the Astros, maybe for all of baseball.

Remember last year when the Astros visited Yankee Stadium, their first trip to The Bronx after the sign-stealing scandal broke? Yankee fans were lurking for the Astros like the Van Buren Boys waiting to mug George Costanza.

It was a different year last year for sure. The Yankees were barely over .500, headed for a third-place finish in the AL East. Didn’t matter, cold-blooded New Yorkers were out for vengeance. They remembered 2017 when they believe in their souls that the Astros were undeserving, big fat cheating champions and Astros second baseman Jose Altuve stole the AL MVP election from Aaron Judge. There seems to be a lot of that going around. Also with no evidence. Turns out that Altuve wasn’t one of the garbage can gang.

It also was baseball’s Covid season. The Yankees allowed only 10,500 fans to attend those games against the Astros last year. And they had security staff patrolling the ballpark ordering fans to wear their face masks. The only time fans lowered their masks was to eat or drink.

Or yell “F-Altuve” or “F-Astros” at the top of their New York lungs. They’re loud to start, and 10,500 fans sounded like a packed stadium. It could be a decibel-breaker tonight at Yankee Stadium.

It was brutal last season. Fans brought signs laced with profanity. They got personal with Astros players. Fans were dressed in homemade garbage can costumes. Party City doesn’t sell those. I watched small children yell the F-word and turn to their parents for a high five.

What a treat for Astros fans, seven games over eight days, all against dreaded powerhouses from New York. A dying sport? Half empty stadiums in Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Tampa Bay and Miami? A vacant house in Oakland? Nobody’s ghosting baseball in Houston.

The Astros are loaded for bear this week. Their pitching is set up perfectly. Framber Valdez starts the opener tonight at Yankee Stadium, followed by Justin Verlander, Cristian Javier and Jose Urquidy. Luis Garcia and Valdez are slated for the Mets at Citi Field. The bullpen is firing on all cylinders.

Then, one week from today, it’s Verlander vs. Gerrit Cole at Minute Maid Park. Game of the Year. Where the pitching rubber meets the road. TK, Blummer and Julia, get ready for World Series level ratings.

It’s go time. The only thing that could make that game any bigger and better – if it were a Tuesday Dollar Dog Night.

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