The Houston Rockets fans showed up in droves to watch their squad lose to the New Orleans Pelicans 116-115 to open the preseason, but let's not kid ourselves. Everyone was there to see Dwight Howard make his Houston debut.
They weren't disappointed.
It didn't take long for Howard to make an impact, and he didn't stop making one until he'd played his last minute of the preseason opener. Is this a sign of things to come, or is it just a fluke created by the lack of cohesiveness that inherently goes hand-in-hand with the preseason action?
The answer to that will be determined at a later date, but the early indications look quite positive.
Howard finished his first game (well, first three quarters) in a Rockets uniform with 19 points, nine rebounds, three assists and a block, shooting 6-of-11 from the field and 7-of-11 from the charity stripe.
Not too shabby, huh?
Houston fans have to be jumping up and down with joy. Lakers fans...well, let's not go there. Instead, let's dole out some grades for a few aspects of D12's debut.
Doesn't that video just leave you salivating, Rockets fans?
In a nutshell, that's everything that Houston and Hakeem Olajuwon want to see out of D12, and they got it all in his very first (unofficial) basket as a member of the team. Post moves have given Howard trouble in the past, so it's a positive sign to see him playing with confidence right away.
The newly acquired big man finished the first half with 11 points on 3-of-6 shooting. At first, he was a little tentative, getting shots swatted away twice in the first quarter. But he finished the half with an and-one finish against Jeff Withey, the big rookie center out of Kansas.
Perhaps even more encouraging, Howard was 5-of-9 from the charity stripe during his first two quarters of action. This may seem ugly for most players, but that 55.5 percent shooting would be the highest mark that D12 has posted for a season since 2010-11.
And in the second half, he brought that total up to 7-of-11.
The third quarter began with a flurry of big dunks, and that's exactly the type of offensive production you should expect to see from the big man throughout his first season in Rocket red. After a nice reverse layup against Greg Stiemsma, he even had 17 points in only 20 minutes of action.
Whether teammates were setting him up or he was creating looks for himself, Howard couldn't be stopped on offense. Except by Anthony Davis, according to Pelicans.com's Jim Eichenhofer: "Fun play to watch: Dwight Howard draws oohs from crowd with gorgeous spinning post move and hook, but Anthony Davis still swats it away."
Still, let's not allow one play to trump everything else.
It didn't take long for D12 to make a defensive impact.
On the New Orleans Pelicans' second possession, he swatted away a Jrue Holiday floater in rather definitive fashion. Howard's positioning was perfect, as he could both play help defense and still corral Greg Stiemsma as he rolled to the hoop.
Beyond that, the first half was full of adjustments. Although he didn't make any outstanding plays other than the aforementioned block of the newest New Orleans point guard, Howard was feeling out his positioning in the team's rotations.
As to be expected.
And yet, he was still undeniably effective. Howard held Stiemsma to a low output (not that it's hard to do that), and he also forced Anthony Davis out of the paint on multiple occasions.
If it weren't for the two goaltending violations (one of which was...questionable), Howard's defense would have looked even better.
There were a couple plays that truly exemplified the impressive level of chemistry Howard has already developed with his teammates.
You can see the pass to Chandler Parsons up above, but let's not forget about the play that opened the second half.
Donatas Motiejunas (who is undoubtedly going to be universally known as D-Mo by the end of the 2013-14 campaign) drew a double team and fed the ball nicely to D12 for an emphatic dunk. That's not an easy play for a big man to make, but Motiejunas and Howard already seem to know where the other frontcourt member is going to be.
Throughout the game, Howard never looked as though he was forcing anything. He had a tremendous offensive output and played quite well defensively, but everything came within the natural flow of Kevin McHale's systems.
It would have been easy for the big man to look as though he wanted to prove all the doubters wrong. He could have come out firing and failed to involve his teammates, shooting the ball whenever he found it in his hands.
He didn't. And that's quite impressive for a debut.
It allowed him to prove the doubters wrong all the same.
A putback dunk in the second half said everything here.
After Donatas Motiejunas missed a corner three-pointer off the backboard, Howard cleaned up the miss in rather emphatic fashion.
Throughout the game, he fought for positioning and consistently managed to look healthy. In this first exhibition experience, that's all you can ask.
Howard didn't need to play 40 minutes. Nor did he need to be sprinting up and down the court. He just had to look healthy and able to make a physical impact on both ends of the court.
That's exactly what he did, and Houston has to be quite satisfied with his effort. The only negative was a technical foul, eerily reminiscent of his final game with the Los Angeles Lakers.
Howard's motor and endurance looked great during his 27 minutes of action through three quarters, but the mentality still needs a little work, hence the slightly lowered grade.
Dwight Howard clearly cared about this game.
Hell, he cared so much that he received a technical foul for arguing an illegal defense call at the end of the third quarter. But you could also tell just by the sheer volume of his output.
When Howard was on the court, he thrived in just about every aspect of the game.
James Harden outscored him, but who wasn't impressed by D12's offensive game? The big man knocked in a variety of shots, finishing 6-of-11 from the field and even shooting...wait for it...63.6 percent from the free-throw line.
He was also a defensive force and cleaned the glass with the best of 'em, recording a game-high nine rebounds during the 27:17 he spent on the court. Additionally, Howard displayed nice chemistry and a motor that left no doubt his back injury was a thing of the past.
Let me put it this way: Howard received at least an A- in each of the four major categories I graded here. For a preseason debut, that's nothing shy of spectacular.
We'll see whether D12 can keep this level of performance up, but it's as good a start as any Houston fan could have hoped for.
Overall Grade: A+