Despite a rash of injuries, ups and downs in the schedule and the addition of players like Gerald Green and Joe Johnson to the lineup, the Rockets entered All-Star weekend with the best record in the NBA at 44-13, percentage points (and a tiebreaker) in front of the Golden State Warriors.
The next closest team in the Western Conference is ten games back. They have done so through unfathomable offense and a remarkably stingy defense. They also refuse to back off even in games where a loss would seem almost acceptable given how short handed they may be or tired from a grueling road trip. This team remains resilient with the record to prove it.
But before everyone looks ahead to the playoffs, there are still 25 games to go including a fairly sizable number against the better teams in the NBA. Here's a breakdown.
Home: Minnesota, Boston
Away: Denver, Utah (back-to-back travel), LA Clippers
Minnesota has not matched up well against the Rockets this season, losing by 18 in both games. But, they are still a dangerous squad. Despite the Jazz's woes this season, a pair of travel games back-to-back at altitude doesn't bode well. The Clippers game won't have fightin' Blake Griffin who was traded to Detroit, but it will be a legit shot at whopping a team that turned the last game there into a literal fist fight. Finally, Boston remains one of the best in the East, albeit somewhat inconsistent. That will make for a good challenge.
The Next Ten
Home: San Antonio (back-to-back travel), LA Clippers, Detroit
Away: Oklahoma City, Milwaukee (back-to-back travel), Toronto, Dallas, New Orleans, Minnesota (back-to-back travel), Portland
In what is likely the toughest stretch of games the entire season, the Rockers go full road warrior with seven of their 10 games away from the Toyota Center, three back-to-back games with travel the night before on all of them and only two games against teams currently not in playoff contention. Circle the OKC, Toronto and Detroit games on the schedule. Those will be raucous.
The Final Ten
Home: New Orleans, Atlanta (back-to-back), Chicago, Phoenix, Washington, Portland, Oklahoma City
Away: San Antonio, LA Lakers, Sacramento (back-to-back travel)
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SHOW ME HOW
In many ways, this is the antithesis to the previous 10 games. With only three on the road, two back-to-backs against weaker teams and only five against teams currently in the playoff race, this feels like a good tune up for the playoffs and maybe a chance to rest some guys to get healthy. The home games against OKC and Portland should be barn burners with both teams (and possibly the Rockets) jockeying for final playoff seeding.
That would leave the Rockets with a final record of 62-20, a franchise best. It should also keep them well above the fray in the West, though not necessarily ahead of the Warriors for home court advantage throughout the playoffs (they should finish ahead of the entire Eastern Conference). The good news is their schedule is fairly even throughout the last 25 games with some very tough match ups and some extremely soft ones as well.
This is not a team that has relented against weaker opponents and there is no reason to think they will do that now. Of course health is a huge key. The Rockets are an astounding 28-1 when James Harden, Chris Paul and Clint Capela all play. Assuming they can remain healthy going into those last ten games, they should have a chance to further solidify their rotation, get a little rest for their big guns and still secure the franchise's best record and perhaps an MVP trophy for Harden before the "real season" begins.