Two months. Twenty-five games. That's what remains for the Houston Rockets before the postseason. After a few days off for the All-Star break, it appears the team will, for the first time in months, be at full strength with the return of Clint Capela after a 15-game absence with a torn ligament in his thumb. It couldn't have come at a better time with the team in the midst of a rather mediocre stretch (11-9 over their last 20 games), which included some brutal losses, several of the come-from-behind variety.
While Capela will certainly help bolster a roster that has been beset by injury since the start of the season, will it be enough? The Rockets currently sit in fifth place in the West, one game behind Portland and four behind Oklahoma City. They have virtually no shot at reaching first or second, but there is an outside shot at third and certainly a good chance of getting into fourth, which would provide them with one round of home court advantage.
With 25 games remaining, there is still a good chance for them to make up ground.
Tough First Eight
The first eight games back after the break won't be easy. In fact, it is arguably one of the toughest stretches of the season. There are definitely some "gimmies" in there, though the Rockets haven't exactly been at their best against teams they are supposed to beat all season. But, when you break down the next two weeks, there is no getting around how difficult it will be. They will need to at least hold the line if they want to avoid dropping in the standings.
Road Games: 6
Home Games: 2
Playoff-Caliber Opponents: 7
Projected Record: 4-4 (37-28)
Most Critical Game(s): at Charlotte 2/27, vs. Miami 2/28
Just before meeting Boston and Toronto on the road before coming home to Philly, the Rockets have a back-to-back travel pair against two teams trying to make the Eastern Conference playoffs in the Hornets and Heat. The Heat present matchup problems for the Rockets and while both games, on paper, should be winnable, they will likely need wins here before a very difficult next three games.
After that first batch of very difficult games, the Rockets enter what should be a chance for them to pile up some wins. While this run includes a pair of back-to-back sets, both of which have minimal travel, the opponents are less than stellar and even the non-home games are nearby (Dallas, Memphis, New Orleans) necessitating fewer travel hours logged overall. If the Rockets are going to make a push, this is the time.
Road Games: 4
Home Games: 5
Playoff-Caliber Opponents: 2
Projected Record: 7-2 (44-30)
Most Critical Game(s): vs. Spurs 3/22
It might be arguable to say a home game against Golden State is the most important one here, the Spurs game has a chance to both distance the Rockets from a playoff team and give them a quality home win. The Rockets need to show that they belong closer to the top of the postseason standings than the bottom and this could help do that.
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Mixed Bag Final Eight
For as many "playoff-caliber" opponents the Rockets face in their final eight games of the season, some may, at this point, not be in the playoff hunt. That includes the Clippers and Kings (twice). They also get the Nuggets at home, a team they have dominated with one exception this year plus both the Knicks and the Suns before the final game of the regular season. If they are playing at their best and healthy, this could be the couple weeks that solidifies their spot in the upper echelon of the West. If not, they might fall out of home court advantage.
Road Games: 3
Home Games: 5
Playoff-Caliber Opponents: 6
Projected Record: 6-2 (50-32)
Most Critical Game(s): at Oklahoma City 4/9
There may not be anything to play for in the final game of the regular season, but if there is, this game at OKC could be a barn burner. James Harden's former team versus Russell Westbrook's triple-double machine and the possibility of playoff seeding (and a way out of the Golden State bracket) on the line. We'd obviously rather it meant nothing and the Rockets were holding all the cards, but it sure would be fun if there were high stakes.