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January’s schedule provides a challenge

Here’s a look at the Rockets schedule for the upcoming month.

NBA: Los Angeles Lakers at Houston Rockets Erik Williams-USA TODAY Sports

With news that James Harden will be out for at least the first two weeks in January, the Rockets will be forced to adjust. Houston’s schedule in January features 14 games, with seven at home and seven on the road. Most of these games will be nationally televised, which is good news for the fan base outside of Houston.

I’m curious to see how the team will do without Harden simply because this is the longest stretch in his career where Harden will not be playing. It’s his first real injury and Harden is now reduced to a role he is unfamiliar with. Everyone is going to have to step up in some regard and this team’s depth will be tested unlike ever before.

Looking at the calendar, the Rockets are immediately circling two games: January 4th vs. the Warriors, and January 20th, also facing the Warriors. The Rockets probably won’t have Harden for either game, so it decreases the excitement surrounding the game and it is not a clear comparison of the two teams. These are the final two meetings between the Rockets and Warriors this season, so the next time they would meet would be in the playoffs, if it gets to that point.

In order to analyze the schedule, I’m going to halve the schedule with pre-Harden injury games and post-Harden injury games. With Harden’s re-evaluation on the 15th, he will miss at least seven games.

Games Definitely Without Harden

@ Magic (1/3), vs. Warriors (1/4), @ Pistons (1/6), @ Bulls (1/8), vs. Blazers (1/10), @ Suns (1/12), @ Clippers (1/15)

The game that stands out is obviously the Warriors game at home on January 4th. It will be extremely difficult for the Rockets to win that game, especially considering the Warriors always bring their best when they come to Houston it seems. I’m penciling in a loss right there, and I’m sure nobody will challenge me on that one.

The Blazers home game is also an interesting one. Portland gave Houston a lot of trouble when the team hit the Pacific Northwest last month, but Houston led a ferocious comeback in the fourth quarter to beat Portland. The Blazers are a dangerous team, currently sitting in sixth in the Western Conference standings. Harden dropped 48 on Portland in the last meeting, and the Rockets won’t have that coming into this game. Given the way Portland was able to alter Houston’s game plan in the last contest, I’m going to give Portland the win there as well.

It’s ironic how the road contests provide much less of a challenge than the home ones. I expect the Rockets to beat the Magic, though Orlando tends to have games once in a while when they play far better than they are. The team is still without Nikola Vucevic, so I expect Clint Capela to dominate the paint as the Rockets take a win.

The Pistons-Bulls road trip is a tricky one, especially with the Pistons game being the third game in four nights. It will be the first trip for the Rockets to the brand new Little Ceasar’s Arena in downtown Detroit, but the Rockets have their fair share of struggles there. Chris Paul will likely be guarded by Avery Bradley, who is one of the better on-ball defenders in the game.

The Bulls have also won 10 of their last 14 and have been on a tear recently, despite being placed in the tail end of the Eastern Conference standings. If the Rockets win both of these games, I’ll be impressed, but I can’t see them walking away with two wins on the short road trip. I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt and say they’ll split the two games.

If the Rockets play any close to how they played the Suns last month when the team dropped 90 points in the first half, they’ll win. The Suns are terrible defensively and the Rockets beat them last year in the one game Harden did not play. I’m not worried about that game.

The Clippers game should be fun as it is Chris Paul’s return to play his former team. Now, the Rockets tend to play well in LA given how much of the team is from the area. If CP3 takes his emotions out of the game, which I expect he will do, then I think the Rockets will win. The one part that worries me is that the Clippers have Blake Griffin back, and I’m unsure how the Rockets will contain him, but if CP3 steps up and Ryan Anderson does not allow Griffin to go off, then the Rockets will win. I’m hoping that is not too much to ask, but I’ll give the Rockets the win here.

Record: 4-3

Games Potentially Without Harden

vs. Wolves (1/18), vs. Warriors (1/20), vs. Heat (1/22), @ Mavericks (1/24), @ Pelicans (1/26), vs. Suns (1/28), vs. Magic (1/30)

After the Wolves and Warriors games, the schedule lightens up slightly as the Rockets play five teams 7th or below in their respective conference standings.

The Wolves and the Warriors games will be tough, especially because Harden probably won’t play in either of those games. I’m marking both of these games as losses.

If the Rockets lose to the Heat, it means that in my eyes, the Rockets will drop five consecutive home games, which I find very hard to do. Miami is an anomaly. They are the team that will beat Boston on the road but lose to Brooklyn by 20+ at home. Perhaps they play up to their competition? I’m banking that the Rockets will get at least one win at home this month and I predict it will be this game against the Heat. It will also mark three weeks since Harden’s injury and could be a potential return date.

The next four games are relatively simple, especially with a stronger likelihood that Harden will play. I think with or without the Beard, the Rockets win against the Mavericks, Suns, and Magic. The Pelicans game is the only mystery. The Rockets struggled against the Pelicans when they came to Toyota Center last month, and the Rockets usually have a game every year when they don’t show up against the Pelicans. The atmosphere is always tense in New Orleans, especially since four of our players used to suit up for them. I think the Rockets will struggle in New Orleans and they’ll take another loss there. The Pelicans don’t match up well with the Rockets and the team usually shoots very well.

Record: 4-3

Overall Record: 8-6

Last month, I predicted the Rockets would go 10-4, which was actually one win too many. The Rockets wound up going 9-5 with all five losses coming consecutively. It’s hard to tell how the team will fare without Harden, but the team is lucky to have CP3 take the reins. He’s a proven point guard in the league and although the Rockets might drop a couple they might have won if they were healthy, the team should still have a successful month.