The Rockets have played fewer games on the road than any contender in the Western Conference, but that will change beginning tonight at they begin a five-game west coast road swing against the Lakers. Of their next 12 games total, eight are away from the friendly confines of Toyota Center where they are a sturdy 22-7. Unfortunately, they are not nearly as good on the road at 14-10, but the next stretch of games will provide a key test for them and give us some inkling of where they really are in the conference.
While the seven-game winning streak leading into the All-Star break was nice, it wasn't exactly filled with playoff contenders. Only one, in fact, was against one of the top teams in the West (San Antonio) and two others were against teams fighting for position at the bottom of the playoff seedings. And only one of those games was on the road. Looking over the next dozen games, it's a different story.
In this five-game road trip to start the NBA's official second half of the season, they face Golden State, Phoenix (a solid team the Rockets beat soundly in Houston recently) and the Clippers. The Rockets have yet to beat the Clippers this season. They also face the Kings, another team that has had their number. Granted, the Rockets should be favored against everyone except the Clips, but none of them will be gimmies and they get the Clippers on the second night of a back-to-back.
But, it will only get tougher once they get home. That next stretch of seven games includes home games against Miami, Indiana and Portland plus a pair of away games at Oklahoma City and Chicago. Only two in that run of games will be against mediocre opponents.
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In fact, the entire month of March will be tough on the Rockets with games against the Pacers, Trailblazers, Thunder, Bulls, Clippers and two games against the Heat. Where they are at the end of March will tell us a lot about the team heading into the playoffs and, in truth, no one is quite sure where they are at the moment.
Without question, there has been improvement, particularly defensively, but the Rockets still have critical lapses in multiple areas during games. They were fortunate not to drop a game to the Wizards just before the break when they allowed Washington to close a 19-point gap in under three minutes.
They will not be afforded the same opportunities against the best of the best, which is exactly who they will be facing over the next six weeks. And much of it will be done on the road, a place the better teams distinguish themselves.
This could be the defining part of the schedule that moves the Rockets into the conversation with the Thunder, the Spurs and the Clippers for the best teams in the brutal Western Conference. Or, they could backslide and just be in the mix for the playoffs instead of contending for a title. The good news is this team still has room to grow and improve. They'll just have to do it with their bags packed for a while.