On Wednesday night, the Rockets lost to the Milwaukee Bucks 116-109 at home despite 42 from James Harden. It was only their third loss in the last 15 games, a 12-3 mark during arguably their most difficult stretch of the season that has propelled them from the basement of the Western Conference to sixth. They have made it as high as fourth.
And while they may only be four-and-a-half games behind first place Denver and only three back of second place Golden State (they beat both in the last week), they are in an absolutely packed Western Conference, loaded with talent that spans more than the top eight spots needed to make the playoffs. In fact, they are as close to the No. 1 spot in the West as they are to the current 14 seed Dallas Mavericks.
Given the fact that we are nearly half way through the NBA season, it is reasonable to assume this pace will continue. The Rockets most certainly have more talent than probably 10 or 12 of their conference opponents, but, as the Lakers have learned without Lebron James, injuries will absolutely play a part in who makes the playoffs, never mind who gets home court.
As a result, the Rockets will need all hands on deck if they intend to get back to the Western Conference Finals. Thus far they haven't been able to stay healthy and still managed to climb back into the race. So much of that, however, has been thanks to Harden's brilliance. He might be able to keep that up for a full season and perhaps even the playoffs, but the Rockets will have a much better shot if they can start getting him some rest.
Harden currently leads the NBA in minutes played per game at more than 37 per contest. That is FAR too many if they want anything out of their MVP in the playoffs. Give credit to both Coach Mike D'Antonio and GM Daryl Morey for milking the most out of the players they have and picking up guys like Austin Rivers, yet another quality December acquisition without giving up anything. But, to be truly great, the Rockets need all their guys.
Chris Paul has played in only 26 of the Rockets 40 games thus far. James Ennis has missed 13 games, Eric Gordon eight. They have yet to get quality participation from Brandon Knight, who has missed the better part of two years with injury. As admirable as the contributions of Danuel House and others have been, the Rockets, like every other team, needs its best players playing more often than not.
It appears Paul is about another week to 10 days away from playing. Gordon should be back a little sooner and Ennis is already playing limited minutes. No doubt there could be additional moves by Morey to help shore up the lineup for the second half of the season.
They will need all the help they can get.
The West has been the dominant conference for decades, but the sheer breadth of talent this season will make it challenging for everyone. Keeping that talent healthy and fresh will be key to how far a team like the Rockets go in the playoffs. Right now, regardless of how well they have played lately, they are flirting with disaster.