Creight Expectations

Capela injury means Rockets toughest stretch starts now

Jason Miller

Rockets center Clint Capela is going to miss the next 4-6 weeks with ligament damage in his hand, according to reports. The Rockets are about to embark on their toughest stretch of the season.

It's not the toughest stretch due to who they are playing, but who they are playing without. Make no mistake, Capela is the second most important player on the Rockets.

On a team that is completely built around the talents of James Harden, Capela is the most important secondary piece, because the Rockets have no way of replacing any part of his production.

Injuries have been an issue for the Rockets all season, and Eric Gordon and Chris Paul are significant absences. However, Mike D'Antoni has gotten improved and more consistent play from Gerald Green and recently acquired Austin Rivers to help make up those absences. Replacing Capela is far more difficult.

Nene is 36, and the Rockets know they cannot play him more than 15 minutes a game or on back-to-backs if they expect to keep him healthy. He also cannot play at the level of Capela (17.6 PPG; 12.6 RPG 1.83 BPG) even in regulated minutes.

The Harden/Capela pick and roll is a staple of the offense, and one that cannot be replicated the same way with any other player on the roster.

While slightly-used big men Isaiah Hartenstein and Marquese Chriss could see more action, I don't expect it to be much. I do expect the Rockets to play a lot of small ball, I expect to see PJ Tucker seeing more time as the big man on the floor for Houston, and for the team to lean on James Harden even more.

Six weeks essentially brings us to March 1. The Rockets will play 20 games in that stretch, about 25% of the season. Their opponents' win percentage for that stretch is 48%, although they will face the Lakers twice, Toronto, Denver, Utah, OKC & Golden State in that stretch as well.

While D'Antoni said this weekend he expects Gordon back later this week and Paul the following week, neither fit the bill of replacing a big man. Of course, the team's poor decisions in the offseason have left the team very shorthanded in the frontcourt.

We are about to see what the Rockets are made of, because they will need to find creative ways to win games, and hopefully not burn out some other players in the process. It's a good thing James Harden is essentially indestructible, because there is going to be a lot of small ball and even more dependency on reigning MVP for another 6 weeks.

Patrick Creighton hosts "Late Hits" 7-9p weeknights on ESPN Houston 97.5 & "Straight Heat" 9a-12p weekdays on SB Nation Radio. Follow him on Twitter: @PCreighton1

Despite Danuel House being out with a sacral contusion, Eric Gordon being out due to his recent right knee surgery, and Clint Capela being out due to his concussion, the Rockets grinded it out defensively and beat a good Pacers team Friday night. This obviously starts and ends with James Harden's performance (44 points, 8 rebounds, 5 assists, and 4 steals), but it's also much more than that. The Rockets have figured it out defensively to an extent many observers didn't think was possible just two weeks ago.

"A lot of guys had to step up and they did," said Mike D'Antoni after the game. "Right now, like we talked about so many times, we just got to get wins and then we'll get some guys back [from injury]. I thought our defense is getting better all the time, big stops, and James [Harden] was ridiculous. It was a good win."

D'Antoni is correct in that there is a huge value in banking regular seasons early and figuring it out with a healthy roster later. These wins count the same as the ones late in the season as Houston found out last season. While they're trying to get healthy, they need contributions from guys they wouldn't normally lean on and they found that tonight from Ben McLemore. McLemore really stepped up tonight as Houston's second scorer, tallying 21 points on 67.1% true shooting.

"I continue to be a pro, and then continue to do whatever I need to do to help my teammates or help the team win games," said McLemore. "This summer, obviously I signed with them and I was just preparing myself for moments like this."

Tyson Chandler was also huge for the Rockets even though his numbers didn't pop out to you in the stat sheet (2 points, 6 rebounds, 1 block, and 1 steal). Chandler was a team high +24 and really shined defensively with the Rockets being without Capela.

"He does everything else," said Harden. "Tip basketballs for rebounds, the contested shots, everything else, the communicating, the talking. Everything that doesn't show up on the stat sheets, he does it."

Star of the game: James Harden continued his hot streak, tallying 44 points, 8 rebounds, 5 assists, and 4 steals on 68.4% true shooting. Down Danuel House, Eric Gordon, and Clint Capela, the Rockets needed every bit of Harden's heroics and he delivered. Harden's performances are becoming so regular that they almost feel normal or pedestrian. Let me remind you that nothing about what Harden is doing is or should be considered 'normal'. This is a truly historically special player we're watching on a herculean stretch.

Honorable mention: Ben McLemore delivered his best game of the season for the Rockets scoring 21 points on 6 of 13 shooting from the field, 5 of 6 shooting from the free throw line, and 4 of 11 from three-point range. When Gerald Green went down for the Rockets before the season, there was a void to be filled for a player like McLemore and Houston is fortunate that they found McLemore when they did. He's been the definition of a pleasant surprise

Key moment: From the 8:07 mark of the 4th quarter to the 5:00 mark, James Harden went on a personal 12-0 run for the Rockets that took the Rockets from a 2-point deficit to a 10-point lead. The Rockets were badly in need of offense as Westbrook was struggling to carry the second unit and Harden showed up right when they needed him.

Up next: The Rockets travel to Minnesota at 7:00 p.m. on Saturday to play the Timberwolves.

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