As the Rockets exited the All-Star break, it was clear the next 20 games on the schedule would be tough. The first five would be difficult, but the next ten featured seven road games against eight teams vying for the playoffs and multiple back-to-backs with travel in between. They came out of the break having already won 10 in a row. They won the next seven before a loss at Toronto, the best team in the Eastern Conference. They haven't lost since.
Now, with only two games remaining in that brutal 20-game stretch, they will, at worst, finish those games 17-3 heading into the final 10 games of the season. Next up is perhaps the only team hotter than Houston right now, the Trailblazers, who have won 12 straight.
But before getting to the next game, let's take a look at the last couple. On Saturday, the Rockets went to New Orleans, the last team they lost to before their 17-game winning streak. It wasn't exactly a beautiful game, but a win is a win as two MVP candidates in James Harden and the Pelicans' Anthony Davis met. Davis was stellar, but the Rockets held him down when it counted and hung on for a 107-101 win.
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In Minnesota on Sunday night, one of the tougher back-to-backs on the schedule all season, the Rockets cruised to a huge lead early and held off a Timberwolves run in the second half to win by 9. It was the first time in four games against Minny that Houston didn't win by 18 points.
Harden and Chris Paul combined for 52 points and 21 assists. Clint Capela added 16 points and 12 rebounds. Perhaps the most interesting moment of the night came when Gorgui Dieng shoved Paul to the floor on a loose ball play prompting Gerald Green to shove Dieng from behind. It wasn't significant in the grand scheme of things, but it demonstrated the toughness the Rockets have seemingly lacked in previous seasons.
Now, on to Portland. Their 12 straight wins have included the Warriors (twice), Timberwolves, Thunder, Jazz and Cavaliers. They are currently in the third spot in the playoff race, still well behind the Rockets and Warriors, but pushing their lead over the rest of the pack. Much like the Rockets, Portland has struggled to go deep into the playoffs the last few seasons despite huge contributions from their star-studded back court. Harden-Paul versus Damien Lillard-CJ McCollum makes for a killer matchup, one that will be fun to watch.
As good as Portland has been, the Rockets have now won 22 of their last 23 games. They have only lost once since January and that was to the best team in the East. The Tuesday night matchup between these two teams feels similar to that Toronto game. Hopefully, the Rockets can finish this clash of the titans with a win before heading back home where they play 8 of their last 11.