CHAMPIONSHIP DNA?

Why fans may have witnessed the most pivotal day in Houston sports history

Composite image by Jack Brame.

Houston sports fans may look back at Tuesday, Aug. 18 as the day the Astros became legit pennant contenders, and the Rockets took their first serious step toward the 2020 NBA title.

The Astros beat the Colorado Rockies, 2-1, in extra innings, and the Rockets unleashed a wire-to-wire beatdown on the OKC Thunder, 123-108, to take Game 1 of their first-round playoff series.

Sure, call me a bigger homer than that hack who wrote the Iliad and the Odyssey, but don't be surprised if we have two socially distanced parades around the corner in downtown Houston.

So far, the NBA playoffs have been a showcase for big-time superstar scorers, like Damian Lillard, Luka Doncic, Anthony Davis, Giannis Antetokounmpo, LeBron James, Donovan Mitchell and … our guy James Harden.

Who has the edge? Listen to Charles Barkley: "James Harden is the best one-on-one player I may have ever seen in my life." And Barkley has seen Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, all the legends. Rockets general manager Daryl Morey said it last year: "You can argue for him (Harden) as the best offensive player of all-time."

Harden poured in 37 points Tuesday to lead the Rockets to a statement win over the OKC Thunder. Yeah, there are games when he has more turnovers than Three Brothers Bakery, and more missus than Larry King, but when he's on, nobody tops Harden. Don't forget, this scoring machine led the NBA in assists in 2016-17. He's averaged more than seven assists a game the past six seasons.

Things will only get better when Harden's superstar running mate Russell Westbrook returns from a quad injury. Eric Gordon already is back in form. Add in Danuel House, Robert Covington, Jeff Green, Ben McLemore, P.J. Tucker and Austin Rivers, and the Rockets simply are too fast and have too much firepower for an opponent to handle.

Tuesday, the Rockets overwhelmed the Thunder, led 68-52 at halftime and didn't let the Thunder get within single digits the rest of the game. The Rockets were scary good.

Earlier that day, and just as important, the Astros won a game they would have blown two weeks ago. Starter Zack Greinke was magnificent, tossing eight innings of shutout ball. Light-hitting Myles Straw lined a bases-loaded walk-off single in the 10th for the 2-1 Astros win. It was their fourth consecutive one-run victory. That's what champions do, win close games.

It's not just how the Astros are winning, it's with whom they're doing it. Monday, six of the nine hitters in the Astros batting order were hitting .200 or below: George Springer, Abraham Toro, Jose Altuve, Kyle Tucker, Dustin Garneau, and Straw. The starting pitcher was rookie Brandon Bielak. Somehow they beat the Rockies, by the same 2-1 score.

Justin Verlander, George Springer (here we go again), Roberto Osuna, Yordan Alvarez, Brad Peacock, Aledmys Diaz, Michael Brantley, and Chris Devenski are on the infirmary list. Joe Smith has an excused absence for the season, but Osuna and Alvarez likely won't return this year.

Yet here they are, with a 13-10 record, riding a six-game winning streak, firmly in second place in the American League West. By this time next week, half the season will be over, that's weird, and the Astros are in the thick of the playoff picture.

Think back to last year, when the Astros won 107 games and the American League pennant. The Astros began the 2019 season with a pitching rotation of eventual Cy Young Award winner Verlander (21-6), Cy Young runner-up Gerrit Cole (20-5), lefty Wade Miley (14-6), and righty Peacock (7-6). Between them, they started 115 games for the American League champion Astros. That's a pennant-winning staff.

This year, all gone: Verlander is 1-0, on the injured list. Cole is 4-0, but for the New York Yankees. Miley is 0-2 with a 16.20 earned run average for the Cincinnati Reds. Peacock is nursing a shoulder injury and hasn't pitched this season.

In 2020, the Astros are relying on pitchers Greinke and the return of Lance McCullers. After that, it's not a who's who, it's just a "who?" The Astros are throwing pitchers wearing uniform No. 59 (Framber Valdez), No. 60 (Enoli Paredes), No. 53 (Cristian Javier), No. 70 (Andre Scrubb), No. 67 (Cy Sneed), No. 64 (Brandon Bielak), No. 72 (Humberto Castellanos) and No. 66 (Bryan Abreu).

That isn't a pitching staff. That's the Houston Texans offensive line. Still, right now, I wouldn't bet against Houston – the Astros or the Rockets.

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RAVENS 33, TEXANS 16

5 observations from the Ravens win over the Texans

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Let's be honest; the Texans were not going to beat the Ravens. Baltimore has better players, a better quarterback and a better coaching staff. (And oh, a better kicker). All of that was on display in the Ravens' 33-16 win.

The Ravens move to 2-0, while the Texans dropped to 0-2 after facing the AFC's two best teams.

The Texans will still likely contend for a playoff spot, but nothing the last two weeks indicates they are anywhere near contending in the AFC. A look at five things from the Ravens win:

1) Oh, Brien...It did not take long for Bill O'Brien's goofy coaching to rear its ugly head. Down 3-0 at their own 34 as the first quarter was running out, O'Brien chose to go for it on fourth and one. The play was predictably blown up, the Ravens quickly scored to make it 10-0, and the Texans were instantly in a hole against a superior opponent. You can't give points away against the Ravens. They might have scored anyway with a punt, but there was no stopping them with a short field.

2) Some positives on defense. Despite the score, The Texans looked much better on that side of the ball against an explosive offense. J.J. Watt had two sacks, the team had four total, and they kept Lamar Jackson from destroying them. Seven of the points were scored by the Ravens defense, and O'Brien's gaffe led to seven more. The Ravens wore them down in the fourth quarter, but they played well enough until then to keep the team in the game had the offense been better. They did not force any turnovers, however, and that was one of the differences in the game. They were also blown off the ball on a fourth and one in the fourth quarter that led to the Ravens' 30th points and could not stop the run at all in the fourth quarter. But that's what the Ravens do with a lead, and the Texans offense gave them no breaks by being unable to stay on the field.

3) The difference between real contenders...The Ravens were just so much more skilled on both sides of the ball. Defensively, they focused on taking away the run. David Johnson averaged 3.1 yards per carry. Will Fuller had as many catches as you did. The Ravens forced two turnovers on just really good football plays. The Texans don't make plays like that. They might against lesser teams, but if your goal is to compete with the best, it's just not good enough.

4) Deshaun Watson needs to be better. His numbers looked so so on the surface (25 of 36, 275 yards, 1 TD, 1 interception). He was sacked four times and added 17 rushing yards on five carries. He did not make plays late when they needed one here or there to maybe get back in the game. With his big contract, it's time for Watson to stop being close to elite and take the next step. His interception was more of being fooled by Marcus Peters than throwing a bad ball, but the Texans were just 3 of 9 on third downs. Throw in the ill-advised fourth down play, and they were just 3 of 10 extending drives. Give the Ravens a lot of credit, but again, to compete with the best, you have to be better than that.

5) Now what? The Texans travel to Pittsburgh to take on the Steelers, who have not been impressive in their two wins. Still, it's hard to see Houston as anything but serious underdogs. They are last in the AFC South, and have a lot of work to do. The defense showed some promise at times, but will have to continue to improve. The offense has a long way to go. They match up better with the Steelers than they do the Ravens and Chiefs, but that does not mean they can win. If you were hoping they would give you some indication they can be more than just also-rans, they failed to do that on any level against either the Chiefs or Ravens.

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