With nearly one-third of the season gone, the Rockets lead the NBA at 22-4, but as we recently pointed out, that doesn’t necessarily make the best team in the league. If there were one solid argument to be made for them not being the best, it would be the relatively easy schedule so far both in terms of opponents and schedule. That, however, is about to change.
As James Harden, Chris Paul and crew close the books on 2017, they face the toughest stretch of the season despite the fact that six of those nine games will be played at Toyota Center, thanks to the quality of the opponents and the compacted schedule. The next nine teams have a combined .530 winning percentage compared to .445 over the first 26 games. In addition, the Rockets will have two sets of back-to-back games and only a pair of back-to-back days off.
Additionally, they will have to go through the gauntlet without Luc Mbah a Moute, who dislocated his shoulder Wednesday night against the Charlotte Hornets and is expected to miss two to three weeks. Get through the holidays with quality wins and this team will begin to erode any lingering doubts outsiders may have about how good they really are.
Spurs at Rockets (Friday, December 15)
The first matchup of the year between the I-10 rivals comes just as Kawhi Leonard is returning from an injury that kept him out the first part or the season. The Spurs remain the Spurs, tough and consistent. This will be the first big test for the Rockets in a couple weeks, even bigger than recent wins over Portland and Utah.
Bucks at Rockets (Saturday, December 16)
The Bucks come to town struggling with some key injuries, but they still have superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo, who is second to only Harden in points per game this season. He and Eric Bledsoe lead an offense that is ranked in the top 10 in offensive rating, but they shoot fewer threes than nearly any team in the NBA and are ranked in the bottom third in defensive efficiency. Still, on one of the first back-to-back games in a while, it will be a challenge to contain them.
Jazz at Rockets (Monday, December 18)
The NBA schedule has offered the Rockets some serious scheduling quirks this season including all four games against the Grizzlies in November and this game, their third against Utah already. The Jazz have struggled mightily on the road, going only 2-10 away from Salt Lake City.
Lakers at Rockets (Wednesday, December 20)
Like the Jazz, this will be the third matchup between the Rockets and Lakers already this year (with a fourth coming New Year’s Eve). The Lakers are young meaning they can be wildly inconsistent. They have had a handful of quality wins, but also some horrendous losses. They have yet to beat the Rockets this year.
The Rockets will need James Harden to be at his best over the next two weeks.
Photo by Eric Sauseda
Clippers at Rockets (Friday, December 22)
After a fast start, the Clippers have tailed off badly, recent wins over the Wizards and Raptors notwithstanding. This…