After a scorching hot start that had them on a 62-win pace at one point, the Houston Rockets came back to earth a little bit in January, finishing the month with a good but not great 10-7 record.
They’ve been decidedly mediocre in the last few weeks overall, going 1-1 so far in the month of February and 5-5 over their last 10 to get to the current 37-17 record, and they sit squarely in third the Western Conference’s playoff seedings. It’s a dip from December, when the Rockets were vying with the Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs for top dog in the West, as they now sit 7.5 games back of the Dubs and 4 games back of the Spurs. But a closer look at the rest of the month’s schedule shows this as a fine opportunity for the team to break out of its current slump.
First and foremost, Houston is on its first three-day break of the season, a welcome sight for a team with obviously weary legs. The Rockets had a notoriously difficult travel schedule in January, racking up more road miles than any other team in the Association. That frenetic schedule combined with a lack of available practice time and some players in and out of the lineup with injury/illness has helped contribute to the inconsistent play we’ve seen since a nine-game win streak came to an end on January 11.
Conventional wisdom says rest and practice time will help them get back their early season mojo. This current mini-break combined with a second three-day break later this month and then immediately followed by the larger, upcoming All-Star break is the softest area of their schedule all season.
The Rockets play only two more away games for the rest of the month and play just four games overall between now and when the team heads into the All Star break on February 15. If there was ever a time for a tired-looking squad to regain their sea legs (and their defensive intensity and their shooting touch), this is it.
The quality of the Rockets’ opposition also leaves them with a wide-open opportunity to rack up some wins for the rest of the month. Houston plays just one team with a winning record: a 28-22 Indiana Pacers squad that bested the Rockets in Indianapolis back on January 29. The Rockets get them at home this time.
The rest of the February schedule features a slew of losing teams that the Rockets can and should be able to feast on. They face the 20-33 Orlando Magic at home on Tuesday night before heading to Charlotte on Thursday to play an away game against the 23-28 Hornets.
Also on the schedule slate are the 16-35 Phoenix Suns, the 21-30 Miami Heat, the other road game against the 19-32 New Orleans Pelicans, followed by the also 19-32 Minnesota Timberwolves before closing out the month trying to get revenge on the Pacers.
With that schedule, some practice time and some rest, it’s not entirely unrealistic for the Rockets to run the table for the rest of the month. Minnesota does match up pretty well against Houston and have already beaten the boys in red once this year, and the Indiana game should be a tough one, but the rest of February’s games should be layups if the Rockets can return to form. Sure, the Heat upset Houston in Miami back in mid January, but it’ll be another thing entirely to beat a rested Rockets team in H-town.
The Rockets will need all the wins they can get this month too, as the schedule difficulty flips as the team heads into March. Houston starts off the month with a four-game stretch that features consecutive games at the Los Angeles Clippers, versus the Memphis Grizzlies, at San Antonio and home versus the Utah Jazz. March also holds home games against the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Oklahoma City Thunder and a home and away game against Golden State. It’s as important as ever that the team takes advantage of the immediate opportunity to pad their record here in February.
With the seven remaining games this month, I’d like to see the Rockets go a minimum of 5-2 to head into the meat of the schedule with at least a 42-19 record. A 6-1 or 7-0 mark over these very winnable games would do wonders for the team’s confidence and chemistry before the difficult stretch, however, and either one is completely doable provided the team uses the extra time off to both rest and get back into sync.
Anything less than 5-2 would have to be considered a disappointment though, as the fates are combining to toss the Rockets one underhand for the remainder of the month. All that’s left is for them to step up and knock it out of the park.