At the beginning of this oddly scheduled six game stretch -- five on the road with one game at home right in between two games in New York City...thanks NBA schedulers -- it appeared the Rockets would have a chance to make some hay, as they say, with a rather tepid run of mostly Eastern Conference cream puffs. After a tough loss in Chicago, they won in Cleveland to a Lebron-less Cavs team that has been struggling even with King James, and followed that up with three straight victories including Monday night's stomping of the Brooklyn Nets.
They will face one more also ran in the Orlando Magic on Wednesday before digging into one of the toughest stretches of the 2014-15 campaign as they close in on the literal halfway point of the season. In the five games following the Magic, they face the Thunder, who have been mediocre as of late but remain incredibly dangerous, the Western Conference leading Warriors and the hapless Pacers at home. That is followed up with games in Oakland against Golden State and at the surging Phoenix Suns.
The Rockets hold a tenuous half-game lead over Memphis in the Southwest Division and currently sit third in the conference. Despite a spate of early season injuries and a bit of a roster overhaul with the trade for Corey Brewer and the signing of Josh Smith, they have been remarkably resilient, much of their success owed to legitimate MVP candidate James Harden, who leads the league in scoring and has become a true leader of this team.
But, they will be tested in games leading up the All Star break. In addition to the aforementioned stretch, they will face division rival Dallas, Chicago, Milwaukee and Portland at home. Road games include Smith's former team, the Pistons, who have won seven straight since cutting the forward, Phoenix (again) and the Clippers. In the 15 games before the break, only five are against teams who probably won't compete for a playoff spot.
If that isn't tough enough, they emerge from All Star weekend with five of their next 10 games against the Mavericks, the Raptors, the Clippers, the Cavs, the Hawks and the Grizzlies, and ending in the always tough thin air of Denver.
The good news is the team is finally completely healthy, though Dwight Howard's knee has caused him to have some up and down moments over the last few games, something he admits will be an issue the entire rest of the season. They have also begun to find a legitimate rotation with Smith favoring coming off the bench and a second unit that features some running and gunning with Smith, Brewer, Jason Terry and Kostas Papanikolaou.
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They have also seen tremendous growth from Donatas Montejunas, who has become a legitimate go-to player in the post. At this point, it seems their rotation is fairly well set though they could still tinker with the back court spots, particularly at point guard. No doubt GM Daryl Morey will be burning up the phones working on deals before the league trading deadline. At the top of the list is likely to be Suns guard Goran Dragic, but with the recent changes, that may not be as necessary.
The even better news for the Rockets is that they have been extremely consistent at the things they want to do best: defense, three point shooting and getting to the rim and the line. They are doing all those things with startling efficiency and they are forcing turnovers by steal at an alarming clip for opponents with three players (Trevor Ariza, Brewer and Harden) in the top 7 in steals.
How they emerge from this tough stretch will not only say a lot about who they are as a team, but will determine not only their playoff seeding, but perhaps if they make the playoffs at all. They are currently only four games out of first place in the division, but also just six games out of the last spot. They will need to keep winning to not just maintain their spot, but to hold onto their playoff chances, particularly with Oklahoma City still on the outside looking in and poised to make a run.
As good as they have been, the Rockets will need to be better and stay that way.