With James Harden and Luc Mbah a Moute still at least a couple weeks from returning to action (and Nene and Tarik Black recently sidelined), it was looking like a pretty tough stretch over the past week, but Chris Paul happened. The Rockets point guard led the way—along with the continued outstanding play of Eric Gordon and Clint Capela, and the surprising addition of Gerald Green—to a 3-0 record last week heading into a showdown with Paul's former team the Clippers Monday night.
When Harden went down, we took a look at the next month of games without him in the lineup. By this point in our analysis, we had them going 3-3. Instead, they went 4-2, sweeping games this past week against a much improved Bulls team, Western Conference foe Portland and a very bad Phoenix team. They finish this short two-game road trip in La La Land against the rather woeful Clippers and they will need a win considering what awaits them back in Toyota Center.
On Thursday, they face the surging Minnesota Timberwolves and Saturday brings the Warriors to town. With a full, healthy roster, these would both be daunting challenges. With four rotation guys out, they will struggle to win, which is why getting past the Clippers is even more important.
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Remarkably, despite their struggles through the second half of December and even with the injuries, the Rockets remain one of the best teams in the NBA with the third-best record and a three-game lead over both San Antonio and Minnesota. They are only two games back in the loss column to Golden State.
Word out of the Rockets is that both Harden and Mbah a Moute are improving, but given their successes, they shouldn't be in a hurry to rush them back. After this week's brutal end, they play five very winnable games to close out the month including Phoenix, Dallas and Orlando. Only Miami and New Orleans present significant challenges and they are good enough to win both. And there are no back-to-backs in the near term.
The fact is, with their offensive potency, the Rockets can run lots of teams off the floor on any given night. Even without their best scorer, they are extraordinarily efficient on that end of the floor and often just too much too handle on most nights. And they understand they are going nowhere in the playoffs without a healthy rotation including their signature star, so better to get themselves 100 percent healthy now than suffer later.
Thankfully, they still have Paul, Gordon and Capela who, on most nights, are three of the four or five best players on the court. For now, that's enough.