Up until last week, the Rockets had the best record in the NBA with only four losses on the season. They have dropped all three games since heading into a back-to-back against two of the best teams in the Eastern Conference in Boston and Washington.
While their struggles have been mostly on the defensive end of the floor, the main culprit at the moment is injuries. Chris Paul has missed all but about a half of the three losses with an adductor strain. Luc Mbah a Moute remains out with a shoulder injury. And Clint Capela missed the fist two losses with a heel bruise only to fracture his orbital bone in the loss to Oklahoma City. He will miss at least the next two games.
What makes these particular injuries so impactful is that they represent arguably the team's three best defensive players as well as two of their best play makers. While Capela doesn't make plays on his own, he acts as an effective outlet for Paul and James Harden when they drive to the basket. That is in addition to his rebounding and defensive skills in the paint. Paul is the team's best perimeter defender and a guy on offense who takes a lot of the pressure off Harden. And Mbah a Moute is a versatile defender and good three point shooter.
Add it up and you have the makings of a struggle in the short term.
The Celtics and Wizards are two of the East's best teams. Boston has struggled a bit lately, but they remain dangerous and the Wizards, while up and down, just beat Boston on Christmas Day. They both represent significant threats to the Rockets this week, especially without Capela and Mbah a Moute for both and Paul for at least one of the two.
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After the two road games, the Rockets close out 2017 with a home game against the Lakers on New Year's Eve where they hope to avenge the loss from last week that started the slide.
The good news is the Rockets are still only one game back of the Warriors for the league's best record and they should start getting guys back over the next week. None of the injuries appear to be the kind of thing that linger and, at full strength, they are tough to beat.
This is also giving the team a chance to deal with some adversity, something they have had little of throughout the first third of the season. No one wants to lose, but if you are going to drop a few games, better to do it in the dead of winter than in the last spring when games really start to matter.
And the Rockets will be cautious with guys like Paul, preferring to muddle through games right now if he means he is healthy and fresh come playoff time. Losing to the Clippers in December may not be much fun, but the Rockets have loftier goals in mind and if they have to sacrifice a few wins to get their guys at full strength come June, so be it.