Weekly Rockets report

Wins over Knicks, Hawks and Jazz highlight a solid week

Eric Gordon seems to have gotten out of his scoring slump. Rockets.com

Well, last week was neat, huh?

The Rockets retired their 22 year old reputation as the only major sports team among the big three in Houston to ever claim a championship last Wednesday, after the Houston Astros won game 7 of one of the most legendary World Series battles in history.

Fitting, it would seem, that the Astros would share a similarly difficult climb as the 1993-1994 Rockets. Both teams faced two game 7 elimination games on their road to glory, with the second of each being the deciding game for the championship. So while that Rockets team may have created Clutch City, the Astros certainly lived up to the name.

With the baseball season having drawn to a close and the Texans season seemingly having taken a sharp turn down skid row, the spotlight now focuses on a Rockets team that has jumped out to a great 8-3 record to start the season. Here’s what you may have missed this past week in case you were off celebrating.

Game Nine: Rockets at New York Knicks (W, 119-97)

Overshadowed by game 7 of the World Series, the Rockets stumbled out of the gate at the beginning of the game. The Knicks held the lead throughout most of the first quarter and it seemed like there was a possibility the team would drop its third straight contest. Ryan Anderson kicked off the 2nd quarter with 7 straight points to seize a lead that would never be relinquished. With the lead as high as 29 points late in the 3rd, the Rockets gave the city of Houston enough of a point cushion to confidently turn away and watch the Astros clinch their first ever World Series Championship. James Harden dropped 31 points, followed by Anderson’s 21.

Game Ten: Rockets at Atlanta Hawks (W, 119-104)

The Atlanta Hawks drained the first shot of the game, which would turn out to be the only lead the one win team would hold all night. The Rockets blurred by the Hawks with a season-high 28 fast break points and added 16 three pointers. Eric Gordon would pour in 20 points to go with 4 steals and 5 assists. Harden would add 29 points and 11 assists. As Hawks shooting guard Kent Bazemore so eloquently put it, “They just shoot the crap out of the ball.”

Game Eleven: Rockets vs Utah Jazz (W, 137-110)

My first game at Toyota Center this season did not disappoint at all. The Jazz started hot on a 10-2 run, and that was about it. By the fourth minute of the first quarter, the Rockets had seized the lead, and it would remain that way for the entire game. Harden was absolutely white-hot on his way to a career high 56 point outing. He would chip in 13 assists as well, and Gordon drained 6 three pointers as part of his 20 point performance. At one point in the beginning of the third, the Rockets had led by as much as 32 points. This game was never a contest.

Takeaways:

  • It certainly looks like both the Rockets and Harden have found their tempo. In the past four games, the Rockets have averaged 120.5 points per game, while Harden alone has averaged 36.3. The past three games have been blowouts, with the average point differential of 21.3. The Rockets’ reserves have seen plenty of floor time, as a result.

  • Gordon’s sluggish 3-point shooting start seems to officially be a thing of the past. In the past four games, he’s fired .450 from beyond the arc, going 18-40.

  • The Rockets have been road warriors to start the season. Seven of their first eleven games have been away from the Toyota center, and of those the Rockets have won six.

Rockets Player of the Week (not named James Harden)

Luc Mbah a Moute. His defense is always great to see, and in the past three games he’s racked up seven steals. He understands his role, and the more I watch him, the more it looks like Daryl Morey may have found a newer model of Shane Battier. Mbah a Moute has been great off the bench to start the season.

Looking Ahead:

The Rockets finally get a little bit of rest before they take on Cleveland on Thursday, followed by yet another contest with Memphis at home Saturday and an away tilt Sunday against the Pacers. The Cavaliers have been one of the most disappointing teams to start the season, but you can never count out Lebron James. Memphis has outscored the Rockets 201-179, resulting in two of the Rockets’ three losses, so it’s tough to assume that this will be an easy contest. Indiana sits at a .500 record on the season behind Victor Oladipo’s 24 point per game average, but are 23rd in the league in points allowed. The Rockets have shown this past week that they’re starting to find their rhythm, and I expect a 2-1 week on the horizon at worst.

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Framber Valdez injured his ring finger on Tuesday. Composite image by Jack Brame.

That sure escalated quickly. The news on Framber Valdez went from bad to vastly worse for the Astros with the fractured ring finger on his pitching hand concerning enough that season ending surgery is on the radar. Valdez is/was no sure thing to have been a first time quality full season starting pitcher, but seemed a decent bet after his maturity-driven albeit short season breakout 2020.

37-year-old Zack Greinke is the only member of the Astros' starting rotation to have thrown even 130 innings in a big league season. Greinke showed notable slippage in 2020. A by-product of the funky short season, or Father Time making a move? If Greinke further erodes, uh oh. It's all question marks behind him.

Lance McCullers got to the big leagues in 2015. Six years later McCullers has zero seasons under his belt in which he both pitched well and stayed healthy. If he hits that exacta in 2021 it's great for the Astros of course, greater for McCullers with free agency arriving at season's end. Particularly confounding with McCullers is that over his career he's been outstanding at Minute Maid Park, and basically sucked on the road. Career earned run average at MMP: 2.51. Career ERA everywhere else: 4.99. That's absurd. It's certainly not as if MMP is some great pitchers' park.

"Crafty" is typically applied to left-handed pitchers. Jose Urquidy seems a crafty right-hander. But since missing the 2017 season recovering from Tommy John surgery Urquidy has topped 100 innings worked once. Cristian Javier has some electric stuff and showed very well as a rookie. Javier has never thrown 115 innings in a professional season.

The odds are long against McCullers, Urquidy, and Javier all pitching well and staying healthy all season. Valdez didn't come close to making it to Opening Day. The best internal candidates to replace Framber (or anyone else) are Luis Garcia and the extremely-hyped thus far dud but still just 23 years old Forrest Whitley.

Woeful Rockets

It certainly isn't paying homage to James Harden that has the Rockets on a 13 game losing streak as they mercifully take their All-Star break. They're just that bad. Watching them is like watching a helpless fly tossed into a spider web game after game. Out of the break the Rockets play at Sacramento Thursday. The Kings are no good, but the Rockets are worse. A loss there all but guarantees matching the Houston Rockets' longest ever losing streak of 15 since the following night they play at Utah. If you care about them the Rockets are painful to watch. Hapless, helpless, hopeless. Their best shot at accelerating what might be a years long path back to relevance is to keep on stinking. The Rockets have the third worst record in the NBA. The three worst teams have equal chances at getting picks one through four in the draft. It's a 14 percent shot at number one, a 52 percent shot of being in the top four. The fourth worst team has a 48 percent chance of picking in the top four. If the Rockets are not in the top four, they lose their pick to Oklahoma City as a payoff of the awful Chris Paul-Russell Westbrook trade.

Watt signs with Cardinals

J.J. Watt could have least acknowledged "Of course the money the Cardinals offered had plenty to do with me picking them!" Off an 8-8 season in which they faded down the stretch the Cards have an interesting squad with some serious upside, especially if Kyler Murray makes a leap in his third season at quarterback. But no way are the Cardinals presently a first tier Super Bowl contender. We don't know for certain who Watt's other "finalists" were and what they offered. Seems a lock that none of them offered 23 million dollars guaranteed or two years 31 million total. Money is another scoreboard and J.J. is a huge winner on it. No one should ever blame a player for going for every dollar he can get. But Watt can't honestly say the best shot at a Super Bowl was his top priority then sign with a team which last had a winning season in 2015 and in Kliff Kingsbury has a guy who has accomplished nothing meaningful as a Head Coach at either Texas Tech or Arizona. Doesn't mean it can't happen in the desert, but there had to be better teams interested if a ring shot was of paramount importance.

Buzzer Beaters:

1. Les Miles, what a slimeball. LSU, what a slimy institution in its handling of serial sexual misconduct in its football program

2. NBA All-Star Game Sunday. In 1993 more than 22 million people watched. Last year, 6.8 million. Not sure 5 mil watch Sunday.

3. Greatest ever NFL free agent signings: Bronze-Packers, Reggie White Silver-Buccaneers, Tom Brady Gold-Saints, Drew Brees

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