The Houston Rockets looked to be in trouble on Thursday night. They were trailing the gritty Memphis Grizzlies in the third quarter, 63-50. Worse, Houston's December MVP, Dwight Howard, had just left the game with his fifth foul.
But the Rockets not only rallied with their All-Star center on the bench, they flourished. Houston ended the game on a 50-29 run in the final 19 minutes, all with Howard sitting on the sidelines. Reserve center Donatas Motiejunas put in yeoman's work with Howard on the bench—nearly 20 of his season-high 23 minutes came in the second half, when he scored four points and blocked three shots.
Star guard James Harden dominated from the free-throw line in Howard's absence, scoring 27 points on 2-of-9 from the field. Impossible? Not when you shoot 22-of-25 from the charity stripe. Harden's quirky scoring line earned him a place in NBA history.
Per ESPN Stats:
Through it all, Howard stayed on the bench. After the game, Houston coach Kevin McHale attributed Howard's near-20-minute break to back troubles, per the Houston Chronicle's Jenny Dial Creech.
Whether or not Howard felt discomfort, he certainly wasn't brooding on the bench. Every time the TNT cameras turned to him, he was jumping out of his seat to cheer on his teammates. He seemed to show more genuine excitement in that 20-minute stretch than he did in his previous two seasons.
Fans across the country noted Howard's passionate bench-cheering on Twitter.
It seems ironic that Howard, a star player who has lost so much goodwill over the past few years, would engender so much long-lost praise from the fans simply by showing some enthusiasm on the bench.
The Howard Paradox
Let's get one thing straight: The Houston Rockets are not a better team with Dwight Howard on the bench. Nobody here is suggesting that.
Now that we've gotten that out of the way, let's explore how the Rockets thrived in his absence.
In the last 20 minutes, Houston got 29 points out of the backcourt combo of Harden (15 points) and point guard Jeremy Lin (14 points). Both Lin (six free-throw attempts) and Harden (15 free-throw attempts) excelled in slashing to the basket and drawing fouls. Lin also went 2-of-2 from behind the arc.
With Howard on the court, the offense stagnated. Howard struggled from the floor, shooting 1-of-5. His two points were by far a season low (he had seven points in a win against the Knicks on Nov. 14). It wasn't until he sat that Harden and Lin were truly able to shine.
In a way, this game was a microcosm of Howard's relationship to the Houston offense in the 2013-14 season. He has not been a bad offensive player by any means, averaging 18.0 points per game on 58.4 percent shooting.
But Howard's scoring has not correlated to wins for the Rockets. In fact, the opposite has been true: Houston wins more when Howard shoots (and scores) less.
|Howard's Scoring Numbers vs. Houston's Record|
|Howard's numbers||> 15 FGA||< 10 FGA||> 20 points||< 15 points|
The month of December has been a sobering reminder of that fact. Coming into Thursday, the Rockets were just 6-6 in the month, with embarrassing losses to bottom-feeders Sacramento and Utah, despite a masterful month from Howard.
|Dwight Howard's Splits, Coming into Thursday|
Now, the Rockets have suffered some injuries in December, but the same thing was true in November: Houston doesn't need Howard to be a scorer.
The Howard They Need
Last season's Rockets team didn't exactly lack for offense. The 2012-13 squad ranked second in the league in points per game and sixth in offensive efficiency thanks to a fast-paced, perimeter-oriented attack featuring Harden, Lin and Chandler Parsons.
Those three players are still on the team, and the Houston offense still works at peak efficiency when pushing the tempo, spreading the floor and relying on its perimeter scorers to slash to the rim or kick out to open shooters.
But the Rockets have occasionally gummed up the works by falling in love with a slow, interior-dominated game. The season-opening "twin towers" lineup, featuring a frontcourt of Howard and center Omer Asik, was a dismal failure. Even with Asik out, the Rockets still sometimes bog themselves down by feeding Howard too often in the post.
Few teams can run with Houston; opposing defenses do their best to slow the Rockets offense. When the Rockets slow the game down by feeding Howard, they often play right into the opponent's hands.
The Rockets didn't sign Howard to score 25 points per game. They didn't want an old-school low-post player. They wanted the three-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year to raise a mediocre defense to a championship level.
And Howard has been showing signs of being that player. He looked great on defense in the fourth quarter of Wednesday's win in San Antonio, defending the paint with gusto. He wasn't needed in Thursday's win, but he still showed enthusiasm for the team.
Howard looks content in Houston. He looks rejuvenated, both physically and mentally. It didn't matter on the court on Thursday, but it should pay huge dividends in the new year.