James Harden’s MVP candidacy strengthened because of the narrative surrounding the team this year. He played most of the season without his partner in crime and had to shoulder a huge load. After securing the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference and winning their division, Houston is looking to make some rocket launching noise in the postseason.
On Tuesday night against the Mavs in Game 2, the man who had pretty much carried them the entire year struggled immensely to the tune of 5-of-17 shooting. The 6’ 5” shooting guard drafted out of Arizona State used one of his lifelines and phoned a friend. Fortunately for him and his team, his two teammates Josh Smith and Dwight Howard both answered.
The two former AAU teammates–Howard and Smith–came through in an enormous fashion for the Rockets. Howard erupted for 28 points, 12 rebounds and two blocks in Houston’s 111-99 victory. After missing 41 games, he’s finally getting back into his groove and looking to regain the dominance that had “best center in the game” attached to his name.
With the decline of production from the center position, coupled with the emergence of guys like Anthony Davis and Demarcus Cousins, many have forgotten about Howard. Him being shelved for half the season also significantly contributed to this public amnesia. He’s certainly looking to put his name back on the map and remind everyone just how formidable he can be.
Trailing by three points with Harden on the bench in the fourth quarter, it looked like the Rockets might be in some trouble. But to the rescue came Smith and Howard hooking up for three alley-oop passes that had fans salivating over the ensuing offensive possessions. These two integral parts spearheaded an 11-0 run for the Rockets that allowed them to seize the momentum and get their crowd into it. Once this happened, the game was pretty much over and the Rockets were up 2-0 in the series.
Smith ended the affair with 15 points, nine assists and eight rebounds. According to ESPN Stats and Info, Smith had only thrown four alley-oop passes before the six he threw in Game 2. The production that came from the Smith and Howard tandem put on full display what GM Daryl Morey and head coach Kevin McHale had envisioned all along.
Smith has been scrutinized heavily in the past for the poor basketball IQ he often displayed. Between the ill-advised three-point attempts and the erratic shooting from the field, it was difficult to trust him on the floor. The bad decision-making stymied any progress and ultimately, he became more of a hindrance than anything else.
In the 55 games he’s played for Houston this season since coming over from the Pistons, Smith has averaged 12.0 points, 6.0 rebounds and 1.2 blocks. For a player pretty much looked upon to fill a role off the bench, these are decent numbers. The 43 percent shooting from the field and 52 percent from the line are alarming because you’re looking for efficiency on his end. He also needs to cut down on the turnovers, as he averaged 2.4 during the season.
His usage rate, albeit a small sample size, leads the Rockets so far through two games in the postseason. So that might suggest that coach McHale is looking to get him more involved as his confidence mounts. So far he’s netted averages of 13.0 points, 7.5 rebounds and five assists to go along with 1.5 blocks and a steal. If he continues to play with discipline and positively contribute, you may see him take on an increased role.
Howard is also regaining form and has his sights on that elusive championship, which is the reason he ditched the Lakers in the first place. Performances like the one he had in Game 2 will be critical if the Rockets have goals of hoisting the Larry O’ Brien trophy.
Houston took their first two at home before flying to Dallas for Game 3 on Friday night. With the injury to Chandler Parsons and the ongoing soap opera saga with Rajon Rondo, it looks like they may have a stronghold on this series. Harden struggling allowed for other guys to step up and flourish, and they did just that.
The last three NBA Finals had the same narrative: One big three outplayed the other, and the prize was a title celebration. If Houston can somehow find synergy between Harden, Howard and Smith, they might be in for a deep playoff run. Who knows?