For the Rockets, Tough Four-Game Stretch Starts with a Win

The Rockets are going to need a healthy Chris Paul to get where they want to go this season.
The Rockets are going to need a healthy Chris Paul to get where they want to go this season. Photo by Jeff Balke
Chris Paul playing against Miami is proof. After Paul returned from his stint on the injured list, the Rockets were prepared to treat him with kid gloves. No back-to-back games for their talented if oft-injured point guard. But, with a difficult four-game Eastern Conference swing ahead, Paul decided he needed to play.

It turned out to be the right decision as the Rockets were already without Kenneth Faried, Eric Gordon and Iman Shumpert and the team lost PJ Tucker in the third quarter to an ejection. Still, behind Paul's 15 points and 58 from James Harden, the Rockets rallied from a 21-point deficit to beat the Heat 121-118 at Toyota Center, their fourth straight win.

This came on the heels of a lackluster effort in Charlotte, barely besting the mediocre Hornets, on the second half of a back-to-back travel contest that would normally take Paul's appearance off the table. But he understood just how critical it is this team develop some urgency down the stretch, especially in these four games.

The win over Miami was just the opener of, arguably, one of the most difficult swings of the season, certainly the toughest of their remaining schedule. Next up is a Celtics team that has struggled of late, but remains one of the most dangerous in the East. That is followed by a trip to Toronto, the current No. 2 in that same conference, before coming home to face Philadelphia, revitalized by their trade deadline acquisition of Tobias Harris and sporting one of the toughest low-post match-ups in the game in Joel Embiid.

With the Rockets finally healthy (for the most part), they now must get their lineups settled, gain some chemistry and try to move up in the Western Conference playoff picture. They remain just two games out of the fourth spot and home court advantage in the first round. The win against the Heat is a start, but they will need to survive a few more games against tough Eastern Conference teams if they plan to make their move.

Next up is Boston, a team that has had some issues recently and looks out of sync. The Rockets will need to take advantage before moving into a somewhat softer part of the schedule.

The comeback win on Thursday night was, obviously, the first step and a good sign for a team that has gone win-loss-win-loss for seemingly a couple months. Harden had 58, but Paul remains the key. His big shots down the stretch take the pressure off Harden and that was the case once again against the Heat.

A couple weeks ago, the Rockets were determined not to use Paul in back-to-back situations. On Thursday, they changed their minds and good thing they did.
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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