There were dunks. There were blocks. There were primal screams of jubilation.
That was just the first couple of minutes for Dwight Howard, and if he continues to look this good physically, the Mavericks are in big trouble.
Howard may not have been the story of the game. After all, James Harden led the Rockets with 24 points and Dirk Nowitzki had 24 of his own. And the turning point of the game was the Rockets being able to hold down the fort in the third quarter when Howard went to the bench with his fourth foul. But while Howard may not have been the biggest key to Game 1, he gave plenty of indication that he could be the key to the rest of the series. He looked to be in great shape, and the Mavericks couldn’t get any good looks near the rim when Howard was in the game. There were times it looked like Dallas stopped trying to get in the paint altogether.
The game started with some bad post-ups by Howard, but he got going once Harden got him involved in the pick-and-roll. As expected, Nowitzki’s help on Howard down low was awful when Tyson Chandler had to contain penetration.
Everything was clicking for the Rockets early, and it looked like it might be a blowout after Dallas trailed 32-19 after the first quarter.
But Howard picked up his third foul in the second quarter, and as a result, only played eight minutes in the first half. Suddenly, Dallas was able to get into the paint with ease. Rajon Rondo, who was scoreless in the first quarter, poured in 11 points in the second, and the Mavericks steadily cut into the Rockets’ lead. By halftime, it was 59-55.
It was easy to see Howard’s impact when he left the floor. With both Harden and Howard on the floor together in the first half, Houston was +11. Without one of them, the team was -7.
While Howard’s foul trouble hurt, credit the Mavericks for getting some good defensive possessions in the second quarter as well. Houston scored just five points in the first six minutes of the quarter, and Harden looked passive, tallying just eight points by halftime. There was also way too much Josh Smith happening for anyone in Houston to like.
Harden rectified his passiveness in the third quarter by pouring in 11 points. Dallas couldn’t stay in front of him, and he got plenty of looks at the line and in the lane. After Howard picked up his fourth foul early in the quarter with Houston leading 70-62, the Rockets easily could have let the Mavericks go on a run once more. But Harden’s offense and a better defensive approach allowed Houston to stay ahead. Monta Ellis did hit a buzzer-beater to end the third, but Houston still led 84-77 after three.
Houston pulled away in the fourth quarter with a flurry of threes and free throws. Corey Brewer hit three three-pointers in the fourth, and Houston took a 1-0 series lead with a 118-108 victory.
Losing Game 1 on the road isn’t a killer by any means, but it seems like Dallas lost much more with Howard looking as spry as he did. The Mavericks already need plenty of things to go right in this series, so if Howard can stay out of foul trouble and be a dominant force on both ends, things look really grim for the Mavericks.
On the bright side for Dallas, Nowitzki looked great offensively, and the wing players won’t shoot as badly as they did in Game 1 all series. Plus, Dallas did a great job on the defensive glass, which was a huge concern coming into the game. The Rockets only had eight offensive rebounds the entire game.
But this all might be for naught if Howard plays like a superstar this series. Dallas still has enough talent to win the series, but the outlook is a lot dimmer after Saturday night.