For the moment, Dwight Howard is on the bench nursing an ankle injury. He has not played since March 27 as Houston is more or less locked into the four seed in the Western Conference with a date against Portland or Golden State looming.
This Rockets team seems to defy a lot of conventions.
They hoist shots at a quick pace and get out on the wings. They play that 3-point style that got Howard to the NBA Finals in 2009, except with James Harden. And similar to that team, this team lacks deep Playoff experience. Howard and Harden have been to the Finals. No other player on the team has been past the first round.
So for the Rockets to fifth in the league in offensive rating and 13th in the league in defensive rating overall, along with a 16-9 record since the All-Star Break, is a pretty big step forward for the team. Maybe not the one they imagined when they celebrated the Howard signing this summer but a big one for the team that finished eighth in the West last year.
Now come the championship expectations because they signed Dwight Howard this summer. And that will have to come on Dwight Howard’s back. Not necessarily on the court though, but in the locker room as a leader.
“I think people thought it was going to be an overnight thing because we were so good on paper,” Chandler Parsons said. “And you add a guy like Dwight Howard, people thought we were just going to be a great team right away. It’s a process. We knew that. We just stuck with it. Everyone’s roles are being established.”
Now that those roles have been established, it is time for, as Terrence Jones put it, the Rockets to ride their vets and their starts through this long path. The Rockets could at any moment realize that potential and become the world beaters everyone in the Western Conference feared (on paper).
Since the All-Star Break, the Rockets have posted a 110.3 offensive rating. Their defense remains a concern as they come down the stretch and could be the difference between an early exit and a deep Playoff run. Everyone seems to be waiting for this team to reach its eventual potential. Until then, they are just a difficult matchup on paper.
That is where the intangibles come in and where Dwight Howard’s experience will come in. He has matured (some), and he will have to be a leader in the coming months.
“Our defense has to get a lot better,” Dwight Howard said. “But I like the fact that since the All-Star Break, we have come out with a better mentality on both ends of the floor. James and myself have really been doing a good job trying to lead this team in the right direction. We just need to keep it going.”
Howard’s raw numbers are down since the All-Star Break — to 17.2 points and 11.8 rebounds per game in 15 minutes of play — but his impact on the floor appears to have increased as the Rockets are now +8.4 points per 100 possessions with him on the court.
The Rockets are using him less, but injuries might play a role in that part.
Houston is growing as a young’ish team and trying to gain experience wherever it can at the moment. Close games have been an issue in the past and the team had to figure out how to play with each other. It is a lot harder to throw five players together on a roster with a lot of talent than it seems.
The Rockets appear to be getting it no, so to speak. And that could spell trouble if they reach that maturity and cohesive level before the Playoffs.
“A lot of these games that we’re down to the wire and in close toward the end of the season, I don’t know if we would have own those and finished the game at the beginning of the season,” Chandler Parsons said. “We had a lot of lessons at the beginning of the year in close games. We just have to keep playing. I think we’re starting to scratch the surface at the right time. We’re starting to gel. Roles are established and players are playing well and good.”