Prior to December, the Rockets had the second-easist schedule according to ESPN's strength of schedule statistic. Now, on Jan. 2, they sit in the middle of the pack in SOS at 14.
The scheduling adversity that the Rockets faced in December included tough games against the Suns, Warriors, Hawks, Wizards, and Spurs.
December was truly a test for the Rockets, as they faced the NBA's finest teams on a regular basis.The 9-5 record the Rockets posted last month doesn't do justice to how impressive Houston was. Missing Dwight Howard for several games, Houston beat quality opponents the Grizzlies (twice), Blazers, and Nuggets (twice)*.
*I included Denver because I'm of the general opinion that it's always hard to beat the Nuggets in Denver, the Rockets did it in overtime.
Although 9-5 doesn't jump off the paper, there were two games towards the end of the month that could have gone either way against two great teams: the Spurs and the Wizards. Houston lost those games by a combined 5 points. The Rockets had success with these "either/or games" (as Bill Simmons likes to call them) in the beginning of December with tight wins over the Timberwolves and Kings. Their luck seemingly ran out by the end of the month.
Along with Howard sitting out nearly half the month, there were major personnel changes with two significant transactions that altered the rotation. Corey Brewer, Alexey Shved, and Josh Smith didn't bother the Rockets' rhythm. Just looking at the roster additions, the Rockets convincingly improved their team and couldn't have done anything better on the personnel side.
We further learned in December that James Harden can, and will, put the team on his back for long periods of time and his name in the MVP race is no joke. He averaged 30.6 points per game in December as the team's alpha dog. He refused to lose in clutch situations, as he dominated fourth quarters and overtimes. He averaged 5.4 points per game in December when the game was within five points and there was less than 5 minutes on the clock. That was second in the league.
Harden had another breakout game against the Charlotte Hornets on Dec. 31, he sunk a career-high 8 three-pointers en route to 36 points and a handful of sweet alley-oop passes to his buddy Superman.
Houston expects to continue their success in the New Year. They open out 2015 in a dark, scary cave but they can see the light at the end of the tunnel, if you know what I mean. If Houston can get through the first four games of at New Orleans, versus Miami (back-to-back), at Chicago and at Cleveland, they get another vacation with the Knicks, Jazz, Nets, and Magic.
There are some tough matches on the schedule for January, but if the Rockets played like they did in December, I'm sure they'll be fine.