The Rockets recently completed what was arguably the toughest stretch of the season. In those ten games that concluded with a loss to Milwaukee last week, they were 8-2. All of that was done without Chris Paul, who remains sidelined for at least a couple more weeks with a hamstring injury. Most of it occurred without Eric Gordon, who will likely return around the same time as Paul.
For whatever he has lacked in efficiency this year, Gordon is still a scoring threat to other teams and, as such, a benefit on the floor, never mind his skills defensively. And no one would argue that Paul is the second most important player on the team.
And even though the Rockets were only 3-3 in their last six going into the Monday night game against Memphis, only one of those losses (Sunday against awful Orlando) is one you might look and and wonder what happened. Losing on the road in Portland and at home to a difficult match-up in the Bucks is nothing to hang your head about especially when two of the three wins came against Golden State (on the road) and Denver, the two teams with the best record in the West.
Then, Monday night happened and Clint Capela, one of the league's best young centers, injured his thumb and will miss 4-6 weeks with ligament damage — what is it with Houston athletes and thumbs and hamstrings anyway?
That's three significant losses to the Rockets rotation, already featuring a recently added Austin Rivers, young journeyman Danuel House, Brandon Knight, who isn't fully recovered from nearly two years off thanks to a knee injury, Nene, who doesn't play back-to-back games, James Ennis, whose balky hamstring has kept him out for stretches this year, and Gerald Green. Even at their best, those guys plus James Harden aren't a match for the best teams in the West.
And Harden, as unreal as his play has been — he just matched Kobe Bryant for the second most consecutive games with 30 or more points at 16 (Wilt Chamberlin set the record with 20) — he is leading the league in minutes played and carrying much of the offensive load every night for the team. At some point, something will have to give.
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Making matters more difficult is just how good the Western Conference is. The Rockets are five games out of first place and fourteenth place. Any stretch of wins could push them into home court advantage in the playoffs. A rough patch could send them tumbling into the lottery. Never mind how competitive every game is as a result.
Until Paul and Gordon return, the Rockets will have to tread water with an incredibly small and thin lineup. Harden will have to continue his dominance and other guys will have to step up. Fortunately, the scheduling gods have smiled on their next ten games leading up to February 1.
Of those ten games, eight are at home. And only three are against teams with winning records, one at home against the struggling Lakers who remain without Lebron James and have their own injury issues. If they can get through that stretch with their heads above water, they should get some help. But, even with Paul and Gordon, the West is loaded, Capela is out for a couple months and Harden is being worn down by the simple fact the team needs him to win.
They may have just finished the most difficult scheduling patch of the season, but it will mean nothing if they can't find a way to survive the next two weeks and get healthy before the playoffs.