Houston Rockets' Schedule Breakdown and Record Predictions for February

Jake Lapin@lapin_62094Correspondent IFebruary 1, 2015

Houston Rockets' Schedule Breakdown and Record Predictions for February

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    The Rockets are rolling, heading into February.
    The Rockets are rolling, heading into February.USA TODAY Sports

    Over halfway through the season, the wild West is shaping up to be a great finish. The Houston Rockets are in the thick of it, changing spots in the standings seemingly every night.

    As we approach February, Houston is right in the middle of the pack. The Golden State Warriors have separated themselves atop the conference. After them, it's anyone's ballgame.

    The Memphis Grizzlies are a distant second behind the Warriors. The Rockets, along with the Los Angeles Clippers, Portland Trail Blazers, Dallas Mavericks and San Antonio Spurs are not far behind. It's pandemonium out West, and any of these teams have a legitimate shot at snagging the second seed.

    With the trade deadline on the horizon, anything can happen in the coming weeks. Contenders in the West have been battling in an arms race all season long.

    The Rockets traded for Corey Brewer and signed Josh Smith. Dallas made a blockbuster deal to bring in Rajon Rondo. Memphis chimed in by acquiring Jeff Green, and even other teams like the Phoenix Suns and OKC Thunder are getting in on the fun.

    But for now, all other trade talk is just speculation, and the Rockets are primed to make a run this month to solidify a spot near the top of the West. February features a bit of a lighter, home-heavy schedule, but also has some big games against other contenders in the NBA.

    This month will also feature the NBA All-Star Game in New York City. James Harden will be representing the Rockets in the Garden, but unfortunately Dwight Howard did not make the cut. It wouldn't have mattered, however, as Dwight is expected to miss extended time with that nagging knee injury, according to Yahoo's Adrian Wojnarowski.

    Yet the Rockets have been somewhat successful without Howard throughout the season. Harden is playing like the MVP, Donatas Motiejunas has been having a breakout year and the bench with Smith, Brewer and now Terrence Jones has been a huge boost.

    Here's a week-by-week breakdown of the streaking Rockets' upcoming schedule this February.

    Final Predictions

    • Record: 7-3
    • Standings: fourth in West

Week 1

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    The Rockets take on the Bulls to start off the month.
    The Rockets take on the Bulls to start off the month.Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press

    The Rockets start the month of February with a chance at revenge. With only a couple of games in the first week, Houston gets the Chicago Bulls at the Toyota Center in its first contest.

    The Bulls won the first matchup of the year in early January back in Chicago, 114-105. The Rockets had a late lead in that game, but they could not hold off the Bulls' furious comeback. All-Star Pau Gasol led the way for Chicago, with 27 points, 14 rebounds and a couple of blocks.

    Harden, on the other hand, had one of his poorer performances of the season. He scored 20 points, but he only shot 7-of-22 from the field. The main reason for his struggles was that he could not get to the charity stripe. The Rockets shot only five free throws the whole game, compared to Chicago's 30! That was the difference-maker in this one, but things will change next time around.

    The Rockets were in the midst of one of their worst stretches of the season in that last matchup. They had lost three of their last five before taking on the Bulls on the road.ย The Bulls win over Houston was their last solid victory before going through a rough patch of their own, losing six of their next eight.

    Both teams have recovered their mojo since, which should amount to an exciting game in Clutch City. The Bulls are fighting to hold on to a top-four spot in the East, similar to the Rockets in the West.

    Normally known as a defensive team, Chicago's offense has been much-improved this season. With Jimmy Butler's outburst and Pau Gasol's revival, plus the occasional contribution from the former MVP Derrick Rose, this Chicago team is dangerous. It is also top-five in rebounding, and Houston will most likely be without Dwight Howard, which could play a big factor in this game.

    Chicago is one of the best teams on the road in the NBA, and the Rockets have struggled a bit on their home floor. However, the Bulls have been inconsistent as of late, winning one night at Golden State and losing the next to the lowly L.A.ย Lakers.

    Houston should be able to ward off Chicago and pick up a win at home with, even without Howard, as long as the power forward triumvirate of D-Mo, Smith and Jones plays well.

    After the tangle with the Bulls, Houston plays its second of a three-game home stand against the Milwaukee Bucks. Under coach Jason Kidd, the Bucks have been much better than the 15-win team they were last year. They could even make the playoffs!

    However, the Rockets have already gone up to Wisconsin and beaten the Badgers in their own building, sans Dwight Howard (plus Patrick Beverley, Terrence Jones and Isaiah Canaan). This time, the Bucks are the ones who have the injury issues. Practically their entire starting lineup is out with some bump or bruise. Houston should win this one handily.

    Week 1: 2-0

Week 2

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    The Rockets battle the Blazers in a playoff rematch.
    The Rockets battle the Blazers in a playoff rematch.Scott Halleran/Getty Images

    The second week starts with a playoff rematch as the Blazers come to town to take on the Rockets. Houston got the better of Portland in their first matchup this year, winning convincingly 110-95.

    Harden led the way with 44 points. He dominated all night long, releasing his frustration on Wes Matthews after he shut down the Beard in their first round playoff matchup last spring.

    However, All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge sat this one out for Portland with an illness. When he's in the game, it's obviously a big difference. Aldridge has been on a tear as of late, no pun intended, ever since postponing surgery on the torn ligaments in his left thumb.

    I don't need to remind you that he's had big games in the Toyota Center before. Robin Lopez also missed that game with his broken hand, and he probably won't be back for the rematch.

    The Rockets also had the luxury of Howard in the paint last game. He scored 16 points to go along with 13 boards, but chances are he will be out this time with the edema in his knee.

    When healthy, the Trail Blazers have been a top-three team in the NBA. Coach Terry Stotts runs a tight ship up in Portland, with his team being one of just a few to rank in the top 10 both offensively and defensively. Damian Lillard, Aldridge and company will not be embarrassed by this Rockets team twice in a row. I predict a big road win for the Blazers as they try to stop themselves from slipping in the standings.

    The game against Portland is just the first of three games this week, and it's the last game before a tough West Coast road trip.

    It starts with another trip to Phoenix, this time on national television. The Suns have refused to let go of that eighth and final playoff spot. However, the Rockets just recently snagged a win in Phoenix courtesy of the Beard.

    Houston had a big lead that game, but it collapsed down the stretch, and Harden had to bail the team out. This game, however, was the night Howard left with an injury. Phoenix doesn't have any standout big men, so the Rockets can survive once again without Howard in the desert on TNT.

    After Phoenix, the Rockets return to L.A., this time to take on the Clippers. The Rockets have not been able to beat the Clips in over a year. With Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan down low, plus Chris Paul calling the shots, L.A. is not a good matchup for Houston.

    Especially with Howard out of the game, the Rockets' chances are slim in this one, just like they were when the Clips came to town earlier this year and won big. Kevin McHale and his crew will drop the final game, unfortunately in front of an ESPN national audience, before heading into the All-Star break.

    Week 2: 1-2

Week 3: All-Star Break

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    The Beard will be going up to NYC for the All-Star festivities.
    The Beard will be going up to NYC for the All-Star festivities.USA TODAY Sports

    The Rockets will get a nice eight days off for the All-Star action in the Big Apple. Well, all of them except for Harden, that is.

    The Beard is making his third All-Star appearance, all with the Houston Rockets. With Kobe Bryant out for the year with a bad shoulder, Harden is the favorite to take over his starting role, just like he did last season. If the voting system accurately selected the rightful candidates, we wouldn't be having this problem anyway.

    Kobe, an all-time great in the "twilight" of his career, is averaging 22.3 points, 5.6 assists and 5.7 rebounds per contest in 35 games played. Harden, an emerging MVP candidate, is leading the league in points per game with 27.0. He's also posting 6.8 assists and 5.6 boards in his 47 appearances. The Beard is shooting 44.9 percent compared to Kobe's 37.3. Case closed.

    Unfortunately, Harden is probably the only Rocket who will be making the trip to NYC. None of his teammates were selected to the team or even any of the other festivities going on that weekend. The Slam Dunk Contest, Three-Point Shootout, and even the Rising Stars Challenge participants have all been set.

    Houston doesn't have any particularly good dunkers; not without a healthy Dwight Howard anyway. Harden also could have been a solid candidate, but it seems that the league has been straying away from star players and looking toward younger, more agile athletes in this particular competition.

    For the three-point contest, the Rockets have a few guys who could have made a run. Considering they launch the most threes per game in the league, you'd think they'd have at least one guy in the competition, but the NBA thought otherwise.

    Once again, Harden could have been a good fit, shooting 38.2 percent from deep on the season but a blazing 42.3 percent in 2015. Other candidates could have included Isaiah Canaan at 41.0 percent, but he probably doesn't play enough, or Jason Terry, the third-best three-point shooter in NBA history, at 39.4 percent.

    The Rising Stars Challenge may have been the Rockets' best shot at another player in the City That Never Sleeps.

    Under the new format, there are 10 players for both a U.S. team and a World team. The two draft picks, Clint Capela and Nick Johnson, didn't really have a shot, but there was a chance that Rockets rookie Kostas Papanikolaou could have played for the international team.

    The Greek forward has had an up-and-down year with Houston, but he certainly has a lot of talent for a rook. However, the NBA didn't deem him talented enough for this year's competition, but I think he has a good shot at giving it a run next season.

Week 4

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    The Rockets come back from break with a big game right off the bat.
    The Rockets come back from break with a big game right off the bat.USA TODAY Sports

    After a nice long break, the Rockets need to refocus right away. They start off the final stretch of the season with a trip up I-45 North to square off with their rivals.

    The Houston-Dallas rivalry has been one of the best in the NBA this season. There are a lot of factors at play here, including the feud between Daryl Morey and Mark Cuban as well as the Chandler Parsons dynamic.

    The Rockets have taken the first two games of the season series, both slim victories at home. This time, they will have to go on the road to the American Airlines Center. Fortunately, for Houston, the Mavs have struggled at home this season, and Cuban will help explain why.

    Also lucky for the Rockets, Dallas has a game the night before in OKC. In fact, all four of these teams' contests will be the second night of a back-to-back for the not-so-young Mavericks.

    Hopefully Howard will be back for Houston. The big man is yet to face his team's biggest rival this year, and he should be able to succeed against Dallas if healthy. One of his best games of all of last season took place in the AAC, where he posted 33 points and 11 rebounds.

    The Rockets defense has done a good job of stifling the Mavs' high-powered offense in the teams' first two visits, holding the Mavs to under 95 points both times. The Rockets should be able to come out on top once again, this time in Dallas, with the help of the scheduling, of course.

    The Rockets close out the month with the start of a five-game homestand.

    First up, the Toronto Raptors come to town. Led by former Rocket Kyle Lowry, the Raps got off to one of the best starts in the Eastern Conference, but they have slowly come back down to Earth. Although they have some nice pieces, this is a game that Houston should win, especially with a healthy Howard.

    Same thing goes for the next game against the Minnesota Timberwolves. The Wolves are dead last in the standings out West. Although they have some guys coming back from injury such as Kevin Martin, Ricky Rubio and Nikola Pekovic, this should be a fairly easy win for the Rockets in their own building.

    After those two, the Rockets get those pesky Clippers yet again, this time at home. This one, also on ESPN, is a big statement game for the Rockets. Can they finally get past the Clippers who have been giving them trouble for so long? Unfortunately, I don't think this night will be the night. They just don't have the answers for L.A.'s firepower.

    And finally, the last game of February comes up against the Brooklyn Nets. The Rockets won the first matchup in blowout fashion, despite a little extracurricularsย between Howard and Kevin Garnett. The Nets are dropping in the East like flies, and Houston will jump at the chance to take advantage.

    Week 4: 4-1

Conclusion

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    Can the Rockets keep pace out West during February?
    Can the Rockets keep pace out West during February?USA TODAY Sports

    There's no rest for the weary this season in the Western Conference. Regardless of injuries or slumps, no one will feel sorry for you. One small losing streak could knock you down several spots in the rankings.

    Houston will have more than a few opportunities to pick up wins against its main competition. With two games against the Clippers, plus other games against the Blazers, Mavs and Suns, the Rockets can improve their conference record and their standing in the brutal West.

    The schedule has a lot of home games, some against far inferior teams, which can help the Rockets boost their record. There are also a good chunk of nationally televised games for those of you who don't get ROOT Sports.

    February is a big month in the NBA. The trade deadline always creates a sense of drama, and the All-Star break is always enjoyable. Once the break is over, however, teams know it is the final stretch of the season, and it's time to get serious. The Rockets will be no exception.

    Whether Morey pulls the trigger on a deadline deal or not, Houston will be contenders this spring. Last year's first-round exit was very disappointing, but this season, with a new focus on defense, the Rockets are primed to make a much deeper run.

    February is the beginning of the end for the NBA regular season, and Houston needs to capitalize on its easier games as well as its matchups against the cream of the crop in the West. If the Rockets can do that, then they will be able to propel themselves to a strong finish and good position for the postseason.

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