The Houston Rockets have now won four games in a row, their longest winning streak since late November. That may seem hard to believe, given the fact that the Rockets boast a robust record of 33-17, but it's the truth.
Houston hasn't been beating pushovers, either.
Three of its four wins during this run have come against Western Conference teams in playoff position: the San Antonio Spurs, Dallas Mavericks and, most recently, the Phoenix Suns by a score of 122-108 on Wednesday night.
Most impressively, James Harden missed the contests against the Spurs and the Mavericks, and Houston still prevailed.
The reason? Dwight Howard.
Howard has been absolutely sensational during this stretch, averaging 26 points and 10.3 rebounds per game while shooting 59.3 percent in the process.
Perhaps the most encouraging sign was how he didn't let an 0-of-8 start against San Antonio discourage him back on Jan. 28. Per the Associated Press, via ESPN.com:
"I know I missed a lot of shots early," Howard said. "I didn't lose focus. I got a little frustrated because I wanted to make those shots, especially against Tim (Duncan). But I just tried to stick with it and show the team that no matter what I'm going to battle."
An outstanding attitude, indeed. Howard ended up making five of his final seven shots, dropping 23 points and 16 boards on the Spurs.
The center has put the team on his back of late, doing what many hoped and/or expected he would do when he signed with the Rockets over the summer.
All of this comes on the heels of TNT's Charles Barkley, who has historically been an advocate of Dwight, saying that Howard is not a great player.
It's like they always say. A good big man is generally more valuable than a good wing, and that is the case with Howard and Harden.
That isn't to take anything away from Harden. He has been great, averaging 23.8 points on 44.8 percent shooting and getting to the free-throw line 8.6 times a night, but he isn't the most integral member of Houston.
Howard sets the tone on both ends of the floor. He is absolutely dominant defensively and opens up his teammates on the offensive side, much like he did with the Orlando Magic.
Sure, Harden is a great scorer, but he benefits tremendously from Howard's presence, both as a scorer and as a distributor.
How many lobs do we need to see Harden successfully toss to Howard for two easy points before we realize just how dynamic of a duo these two are? And how many ferocious finishes off of those lobs by Howard do we have to see before we understand just how vital he is to Houston's playoff chances?
Let's put it this way: Harden isn't throwing those kinds of lobs to Omer Asik. No disrespect to Asik, who, when healthy, could really give this Rockets club a huge lift, but he isn't exactly a run-and-jump athlete.
Also consider the fact that Howard is more of a matchup problem than Harden can ever be.
Can Harden burn perimeter defenders? Absolutely, but because his game starts from the outside, his chances of dominating an opposing player aren't as great as Howard's, who can camp out down low and abuse smaller interior defenders.
Just look at what Howard did to the size-challenged Suns on Wednesday night.
Dwight went off to the tune of 34 points and 14 rebounds, going 11-of-17 from the floor and a rather solid (for him) 12-of-18 from the charity stripe. Phoenix started with single coverage, and that obviously didn't work. It then tried double-teaming, in which case Howard would merely swing the ball to the open man. It also tried fouling, and Howard made them pay there, too, just like he has been doing when teams have attempted to take advantage of his free-throw deficiencies all season.
Also: Rockets' win probability has either held steady or actually increased every time an opponent has used Hack-a-Howard this season.— Jason Friedman (@JasonCFriedman) February 6, 2014
He did what Shaquille O'Neal used to do back in his prime. He flat out dominated, and it was scary.
You can even see it during games now. The Rockets are making more of a concerted effort to get Howard the ball than ever before. He commands it, and with that, he commands the undivided attention of opposing defenses.
Then, the opposition is simply at Howard's mercy.
Is he a flawed player? Sure. His low-post game is still not aesthetically pleasing, and he doesn't have a large arsenal of moves down there, but you know what? He doesn't necessarily have to. Sometimes, being bigger, stronger and quicker than your opponent is enough, and Howard usually is.
Many have wondered whether or not Houston has what it takes to advance deep into the postseason. It's fair to say that that question is still up for debate, especially in the rough-and-tumble Western Conference. However, one thing is for sure: Howard is making sure teams fear the Rockets.
Can you say with any certainty that anybody in this league would have no problem disposing of Houston in a seven-game series? Of course not, and it starts and ends with Howard.
The most frightening part is the cast of characters that Howard has with him. Do you really want to have to deal with Howard when he has Harden, Chandler Parsons and the upstart Terrence Jones as his running mates? It's essentially a case of "pick your poison." Either play man-to-man on Howard and let him do his damage, or double down on him and allow him to pass the rock to one of the many weapons at his disposal.
Let's not forget that the trade deadline is approaching as well, and Houston has assets it can use to swing a deal for another impact player.
And if that happens? We may have a serious title contender on our hands.
Back in the 2008-09 season when Howard was in Orlando, opponents feared him. After all, he carried the Magic to the finals, eradicating anything in his path. The past few years, though, that fear had dwindled. There was the whole Dwightmare circus, then his tumultuous season with the Los Angeles Lakers and then his much ballyhooed free agency this past summer.
You could see why people were starting to count him out, to mock him rather than respect him.
But now? That fear, that respect is starting to return.
You can see it, and that bodes well—very well—for the Rockets.