Last month, I predicted the Rockets would go 8-6, and they beat my expectations by winning 10 of 14. Houston enters the month of February in a very similar place as the beginning of January: bruised and banged-up.
Trevor Ariza missed the first of at least five games on Tuesday night. Chris Paul did not dress with a groin injury and is listed as day-to-day, and Eric Gordon could possibly miss some time as well. The majority of the burden will fall on James Harden’s shoulders, but guys like Gerald Green and Luc Mbah a Moute will also see more minutes and more chances to contribute.
The Rockets sit a mere three games back of the Warriors for the top spot in the West and the team will be catching its tail throughout all of February. With the season series ending last month, the team will have to face different beasts including the Spurs, Cavaliers, and the Nuggets and Wolves times two.
In order to analyze the schedule, I’m going to divide it into three groups of four games each: the early road trip, the home stretch before the All-Star break, and the games after the All-Star weekend in Los Angeles.
Early Road Trip
The Rockets begin the month facing the best defensive team in the league in San Antonio. It will be the first trip to San Antonio since the team lost Game 5 in the Western Conference Semifinals last May and the Spurs are lining up to be another potential playoff opponent for the second consecutive year.
Even though the Spurs are not fielding Kawhi Leonard, the team always finds a way to lock up James Harden and the Rockets. It will be a good test for the Beard and we will see what he does for his encore performance after his historic 60-point outing Tuesday night. I worry that the Rockets will not have enough offense in this game outside of Harden to win. The Spurs are a great defensive battle and the team will give them a tough run. I expect tonight to be a great contest but it won’t end how the Rockets want. Spurs come out on top.
Saturday is a complete contrast as the Rockets go from one of the best defenses in the league to one of the worst. It will be fun to see Harden go up against LeBron James, but the rest of the Houston offense will thrive on Cleveland’s incompetent defense and pull out a win in Cleveland to even up their record on the road trip.
The Nets-Heat back-to-back is the first of three back-to-backs this month, which is not good for a team that has caught the injury bug like the Rockets. Brooklyn finds ways to compete with teams that have better records than them, but I like Houston’s chances to win in the Barclays Center. The next night is slightly different. Miami gave Houston a game when they came to Toyota Center last month, but Houston was able to pull it out. I’m not as confident this time that the Rockets can do the same, and with the team coming off a contest in Brooklyn, I’ll say the Rockets split this back-to-back and go 1-1.
Predicted Record: 2-2
This will be the first stretch of games after the Trade Deadline, which falls on the 8th, so if the Rockets make any acquisitions, this is the first chance the team will have to play them, or any of the team’s opponents for that matter.
I believe the Rockets will have no trouble with two games at home against the Mavericks and Kings, the West’s two worst teams. The other two games are what worry me.
The Nuggets have enough talent to test the top contenders every night and the Rockets are not immune. This will be the third game in four nights for the Rockets, but hopefully at this point, Ariza will be back, Gordon will return, and the team will be back to 100%. If the team is 100%, I believe they have the ability to beat any team in their path, and the Nuggets are not immune. I believe they take the win against the Nuggets.
The Wolves are an interesting opponent because the team also poses as a potential playoff opponent. The Rockets got the best of them last month in Harden’s return from his hamstring injury, but the team does not pose a great matchup for them. Karl-Anthony Towns will cause fits and this is the toughest game the Rockets have before the All-Star break. Hopefully the Rockets won’t get caught sleeping and can pull out a win, which I think they will.
Predicted Record: 4-0
If the Rockets can beat the Wolves banged up, I’d like to see what they can do to them at home with a whole lot of rest as this will be the first game for the team after the break. Rockets grab a win at home.
The next two games are terrible scheduling for Houston. Two games against the two teams who play in the highest altitude back-to-back. If the Rockets go 2-0 here, I’ll be pleasantly surprised. It would not even surprise me if the Rockets drop both of these games, but the Rockets are talented enough to where they can beat at least one of these teams. My money is on the Nuggets. The Jazz will be quite a struggle and I think the team takes a loss in Utah.
The Clippers’ rematch is not as flashy with the news of Blake Griffin being traded earlier this week, but it will be the first game at Staples Center since the Rockets encountered the secret tunnel. If my hunch is correct, this will be a completely different Clippers roster than the one we know today when the game takes place at the end of the month. With the Clippers heading for a rebuild, I think the Rockets claim their first win over the Clips this season.
Predicted Record: 3-1
Overall Record: 9-3
9-3 is a high bar, but one that I think is manageable for this Rockets team. The team has only lost 13 all year, five of which came consecutively in December, and this team is far different now than it was then. It will be interesting to see if Daryl Morey shakes up the roster with any trades or signings from bought out veterans, but this team is one of the best in the NBA, so it’s expected that the team will have one of the top records of the month.