This week we learned that Rockets center Dwight Howard could miss as few as four or as many as eight weeks after a bone marrow aspiration procedure to attempt to help his ailing knee. The team says he'll be re-evaluated after four weeks. Howard says it is more likely between six and eight.
Either way, it's likely more than a month without the team's second best player. Prior to trades and signings that netted them what is now a much more respectable bench squad including the headband wearing "Band of Brothers" in Josh Smith and Corey Brewer to go with Jason Terry, a stretch like this even with James Harden playing out of this world basketball would have appeared terrifying. But, now?
Well, it still doesn't promise to be a particularly easy schedule, especially with playoff seeding so volatile in the Western Conference. Assuming the worst, Howard's return in eight weeks would come, ironically, on April Fool's Day at home against Sacramento. What might happen in between?
The first test came Tuesday night in Phoenix,. The last time the Rockets played the Suns, James Harden hit a buzzer beater for the win. On Tuesday, Harden was again magnificent with 40 points, 12 rebounds and 9 assists, 20 of his points coming in the fourth quarter alone as the Rockets pulled away late to go to 36-16 on the season.
The good news is the Rockets have only one more game before a nine-day layoff for the All-Star break. In the 56 days the team will potentially be without their starting center, they play only 23 games. A lot, but not what it could be were the All-Star game not wedged in there.
Before the break, the Rockets travel to LA Wednesday night to face the Clippers on a back-to-back travel game. Fortunately, the Clippers are without Blake Griffin, who will miss at least a few weeks himself with a staff infection in his elbow. It's after the break where things get interesting.
Four of the final five games of February are at Toyota Center including a pair of playoff teams -- Toronto and the Clippers -- along with a pair of also rans -- Brooklyn and Minnesota. The only road game in that stretch is at Dallas, the first half of a back-to-back with Toronto.
Tough MIddle Seven
If February ended on a relatively light note, March begins with a thud. Of the first seven games in March, only two are against lottery teams and there are three sets of back-to-backs, ALL with travel in between. Brutal. After an ABC game at home against King James and the Cavs, they play at Atlanta before turning right back around to play division-leading Memphis at home. They finish the four-games-in-five-nights stretch home for Detroit and at Denver. They finish up this run of games at Portland and at Utah the next night.
Home Stretch Five
If the Rockets are going to string together any wins, the second half of March is when to do it. During these five games, they are at home for three and play only one legit playoff team, their third game against the Clippers in a month. Hopeful gimmies include Orlando and Denver at home, Indiana on the road, with a home game against Phoenix sandwiched in between, With no back-to-back games, this will be time for the team to get on a roll.
They wrap up the eight weeks of games without Howard (potentially) with three road games and one at home. The roadies include division rival New Orleans and a tough back-to-back Eastern Conference set with Washington and Toronto. Their lone home game is against a very bad Minnesota team.
If the Rockets can hold it together during this stretch, they'll be left with eight games evenly split between home and road to get Howard re-acquainted with the team and vice versa before the playoffs. The predictions above would leave the Rockets one game shy of 50 wins for the season with only 24 losses. I'm sure they would take that heading down the stretch.
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