Even the staunchest fan didn't think the Rockets were going to win out, but you might excuse them if they had forgotten — given the 14 straight wins — the fact that they had not lost with Chris Paul in the lineup and how they had been winning (before Wednesday night, even if you counted single-digit WINS as losses, the Rockets would still be fourth in the Western Conference).
Still, no one likes losing to the Lakers, even this misfit band of youth that LA puts on the floor.
The ragtag youngsters ran all up one side and down the other, exploiting the porous defense that has been a little too prevalent recently and racking up the Rockets' first loss in weeks even as James Harden dropped 51 on the Lake Show.
It seemed almost inevitable along this stretch of tough games heading through the end of 2017 that the team would falter. Maybe it was surprising that it happened against the Lakers, but they recently gave Cleveland a run as well and their athleticism and energy has given plenty of teams fits this season.
For the Rockets' part, their defense, once in the top five in the league, has been gradually moving in the wrong direction over the last week. But, it's not all that surprising when you consider the players out with injuries at the moment. Luc Mbah a Moute has been out for over a week with a shoulder injury and Clint Capela has missed the last two games with a bruised heel. They might be the team's two best defenders.
Harden bruised his knee a couple games back and seemed back to form Wednesday night, but Paul suffered a strained adductor muscle and left the game Wednesday night in the fourth quarter. Missing three of their best defenders and two starters would make a convenient excuse, but the Rockets are holding themselves to a higher standard this season and no one is feeling sorry for them.
The good news is that most of the injuries do not appear serious. Harden bounced back well and Capela is expected back as early as Friday night. Mbah a Moute could be back soon as well. Paul has been ruled out in the first game against his old team the Clippers on Friday, but his injury is being termed day-to-day. He is not expected to miss much time, but they will be overly cautious will Paul knowing they need him more at the end of the year than in the middle.
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One might think that the Rockets, after 14 straight wins, would be well ahead of most of the Western Conference, but that would be a flawed assumption. In a conference with the Warriors and Spurs and talented young teams like the Trailblazers and Timberwolves, teams can go from home court in the playoffs to in the lottery in a matter of days.
In fact, the Rockets are only a half game ahead of the Warriors for the league's best record, but they are four games up on the Spurs and at least seven over everyone else. We're not even at the halfway mark anyway, so no sense scoreboard watching right now.
The next few games are a mixed bag with the lowly Clippers here Friday followed by Christmas Day in Oklahoma City to face the slowly resurgent Thunder. Then they head to Boston for a date with the Celtics followed by a back-to-back travel game in the nation's capitol before returning home for a rematch with the Lakers on New Year's Eve.
By that point, the Rockets are hopeful they will be close to full strength again and on another enviable winning streak.