The Rockets Are Entering One of the Toughest Stretches of the Season

James Harden and the Rockets should be at full strength for their toughest stretch of the season.
James Harden and the Rockets should be at full strength for their toughest stretch of the season. YouTube screenshot
CBS Sports released its midseason power rankings on Monday and, not surprisingly, the Cavs, Warriors and Spurs were atop the leaderboard. However, following them was a curious selection: the Boston Celtics, one spot ahead of the hometown Rockets. It's curious because the Celtics have lost their only game against the Rockets, play in the much weaker Eastern Conference and would still be six games back of Houston were they in the West, where the big boys play.

Nevertheless, CBS's analysis isn't completely off base:

After losing just two games between December 2nd and January 10th, the Rockets lost two of three last week. Their schedule is tough through the end of January. You wonder if they're about to maybe fall back into a tier with the Clippers while the Spurs cement themselves as the probable 2-seed.
The Rockets did lose back-to-back games for the first time this season. And, yes, their schedule is about to get very tough, with four games in five nights (something the league will mercifully eliminate after this season), including a brutal back-to-back travel date against the Warriors and the Grizzlies. That will be followed by four more road games, their third (and final) five-game road trip this year — they won't leave home for more than three games the rest of the season.

The Rockets have 15 games left before the All-Star break. At the time this is being written, nine of those games will be against teams at or above .500, though it will be heavily weighted by Eastern Conference teams. Regardless, it will be a tough stretch that comes during the time of the year when teams can grow complacent, even bored. San Antonio recently lost to Milwaukee and Phoenix. Cleveland coughed up back-to-back losses in Utah and Portland last week. It happens in a long season, particularly in the dead of winter when the games seem to drag on and the playoffs feel a lifetime away.

But this Rockets team hasn't been at full strength for a month. Center Clint Capela, who has been out for four weeks with a broken fibula, is scheduled to return this week. Sixth Man of the Year favorite Eric Gordon missed a pair of games (both losses) last week with a sprained big toe. And Patrick Beverley is still getting his wrist back in shape after a strain that kept him out a few games. All three will be back during this spate of games to help James Harden, who continued his unreal play with yet another triple double Sunday at Brooklyn. Not only does this help on the floor, but it allows coach Mike D'Antoni to restrict minutes and keep legs fresh.

And, with all due respect to CBS, this is the same team that no one expected to be good the first 20 games of the season, including its coaches and staff. D'Antoni hoped for slightly better than .500, and others thought 10-10 would be a solid mark given the schedule. They went 13-7 and have since gone 19-4, including those two recent losses.

There is, of course, another element to this: the Houston factor. Longtime Houston sports fans suffer from a kind of sports-based PTSD. The more their team wins, the more nervous they tend to get. Waiting for the other shoe (or sneaker, as the case may be) to drop has become an annual pastime, a morbid game of wait-and-see leading to bandwagons stuffed full come the playoffs and that are entirely abandoned by training camp. Sports writers recognize this and it rubs off as they remain as skeptical as locals do.

The good news is this team is already playing with house money. Pretty much no one expected them to be much more than an early-round playoff exit this season, save the players who need to have the belief in themselves wired into their DNA to survive competitive athletics. Certainly none of us could have predicted they would be a legitimate championship contender beyond the halfway point of the season.

That alone wouldn't assuage any stinging losses that may (or may not) be to come, but it should loosen everyone up, including the players, though judging by their shooting percentages, that isn't much of an issue. And when these next 15 games are done, we will all have a much clearer picture of who this Rockets team will be as the playoffs loom. At this point, it is more likely they emerge about where they are already — and that alone, given where the expectations were to begin the season, is remarkable.
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Jeff Balke is a writer, editor, photographer, tech expert and native Houstonian. He has written for a wide range of publications and co-authored the official 50th anniversary book for the Houston Rockets.
Contact: Jeff Balke