One-Fifth of the Way In, Whither the Rockets?

With about 20 percent of the season concluded, the Rockets' 11-7 record appears at first blush to be maddeningly inconsistent. But I think it's a lot easier to explain than it may seem.

One way to measure the future success of the team based on its current record is to look at "bad losses" - either blowouts or games the team should have won, but lost - and "lucky wins," or games the team won out of pure luck or poor play from the opponent.

On the road, the Rockets have beaten Dallas, the Clippers, Phoenix, Oklahoma City, Washington, Orlando and Miami. They've beaten the Grizzlies, the Thunder, the Hornets, and the Spurs at home. Not only have they won every game they should have, the wins against New Orleans and Orlando were particularly convincing, coming against good competition.

Bad losses: On the road, the Rockets have four losses: at the Lakers, the Trail Blazers, the Nuggets and at San Antonio. At home, the Rockets have lost to the Celtics, the Mavericks (Yao was out), and the Pacers. Of these games, I'd put the Spurs and the Pacers games in the "bad losses" category, plus the blowout in LA. And as well as Portland is playing right now, I think that was not a bad loss so much as a bitter one.

Total: three bad losses and no lucky wins. So, in 15 of their 18 games the Rockets played about as well as you could expect them to play. Two of their three bad games, plus the Portland loss, came by a combined total of six points. In other words, the best possible record you could reasonably have expected at this point is 13-5 or perhaps 14-4, instead of the 11-7 that they are sporting. Then again, they have done all of this while blending in Artest and Brent Barry, missing Battier and dealing with the daily "will he or won't he play" McGrady drama. Overall, my view is that they have been extremely consistent, their record notwithstanding.

That said, the December schedule will be telling. To me, every game ought to be either a bad loss or a strong win. There are nine games that this team should not lose if it expects to be a playoff contender: Clippers tomorrow night and on the road (12/13), Golden State at home and on the road (12/5 and 12/12), at Memphis (12/8), Sacramento at home (12/19), at Minnesota (12/20), Washington (12/29) and Milwaukee (12/31) at home.

Of the remaining six games, half are at home. The biggest test will be the Christmas week road trip through Minnesota, New Jersey, Cleveland and New Orleans. Will these guys be feeling sorry for themselves that they are playing on the road in the midst of the holidays, and in the freezing north for much of the trip? Or will they keep their eye on the prize and step up their play when they need to? Contrarian that I am, I'll let everyone else be impressed with a 12-3 record for the month; they're going to have to win at least 13 for me to think they've really improved over their November record. - Sesha Kalapatapu

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