With nearly one-third of the season gone, the Rockets lead the NBA at 22-4, but as we recently pointed out, that doesn't necessarily make the best team in the league. If there were one solid argument to be made for them not being the best, it would be the relatively easy schedule so far both in terms of opponents and schedule. That, however, is about to change.
As James Harden, Chris Paul and crew close the books on 2017, they face the toughest stretch of the season despite the fact that six of those nine games will be played at Toyota Center, thanks to the quality of the opponents and the compacted schedule. The next nine teams have a combined .530 winning percentage compared to .445 over the first 26 games. In addition, the Rockets will have two sets of back-to-back games and only a pair of back-to-back days off.
Additionally, they will have to go through the gauntlet without Luc Mbah a Moute, who dislocated his shoulder Wednesday night against the Charlotte Hornets and is expected to miss two to three weeks. Get through the holidays with quality wins and this team will begin to erode any lingering doubts outsiders may have about how good they really are.
Spurs at Rockets (Friday, December 15)
The first matchup of the year between the I-10 rivals comes just as Kawhi Leonard is returning from an injury that kept him out the first part or the season. The Spurs remain the Spurs, tough and consistent. This will be the first big test for the Rockets in a couple weeks, even bigger than recent wins over Portland and Utah.
Bucks at Rockets (Saturday, December 16)
The Bucks come to town struggling with some key injuries, but they still have superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo, who is second to only Harden in points per game this season. He and Eric Bledsoe lead an offense that is ranked in the top 10 in offensive rating, but they shoot fewer threes than nearly any team in the NBA and are ranked in the bottom third in defensive efficiency. Still, on one of the first back-to-back games in a while, it will be a challenge to contain them.
Jazz at Rockets (Monday, December 18)
The NBA schedule has offered the Rockets some serious scheduling quirks this season including all four games against the Grizzlies in November and this game, their third against Utah already. The Jazz have struggled mightily on the road, going only 2-10 away from Salt Lake City.
Lakers at Rockets (Wednesday, December 20)
Like the Jazz, this will be the third matchup between the Rockets and Lakers already this year (with a fourth coming New Year's Eve). The Lakers are young meaning they can be wildly inconsistent. They have had a handful of quality wins, but also some horrendous losses. They have yet to beat the Rockets this year.
Clippers at Rockets (Friday, December 22)
After a fast start, the Clippers have tailed off badly, recent wins over the Wizards and Raptors notwithstanding. This will be the first time Paul will face his former squad and he won't have to matchup with former Rocket Patrick Beverley, who is out for the season. They still have a couple former Rockets, but, more importantly, they also still have Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan.
Rockets at Thunder (Monday, December 25)
The primetime Christmas night matchup features two of the most talked about teams in the NBA over the offseason. When OKC landed Paul George for almost nothing, the league was shocked. When they managed to also get Carmelo Anthony—and keep him from winding up in Houston—they became the early favorites to challenge the Warriors. But as good as the Thunder are defensively, they have struggled on offense. None of the big three appear comfortable on the floor with one another and none of them have shot well from distance. The result is a dismal record, but with their talent, they remain dangerous.
Rockets at Celtics (Thursday, December 28)
This is clearly the marquee matchup of the final week of 2017. Boston wants to prove they are as good as the best team in the West despite playing in the East. The Rockets want to show they belong at the top of the heap. This could be a Finals preview, though we are still a long way from that. Regardless, this is a big game for both teams. Expect a good one.
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Rockets at Wizards (Friday, December 29)
After an emotional game in Boston, the team will have to travel to play the next day in D.C. The Wizards remain a very solid team on both ends of the floor, but they don't have much of a long-range shooting game, which hampers their offensive efficiency. Their dynamic backcourt of John Wall and Bradley Beal remain a challenge, but the Wizards have had some confounding losses this season, particularly on the road.
Rockets at Lakers (Sunday, December 31)
Once again, the Rockets take on the Lakers in the fourth of five games this season. The final game will be the penultimate game of the year—again with the weird schedule. The annual New Year's Eve affair at Toyota Center should be a raucous occasion...and likely a Rockets win to close out 2017.