Since breaking his nose and getting fitted with a protective mask, LeBron James has seemingly been embracing his role as a real-life superhero. On Tuesday, Dwight Howard reminded LeBron and the Miami Heat that sometimes Superman can still fly.
Howard had a double-double and stuck a hand in James' face as he missed a game-tying three as time expired, allowing Houston to escape with a 106-103 victory over the Heat in a game pitting the NBA's two hottest teams.
A night after scoring a career-high 61 points, James again had the chance to play hero. After an inexplicable James Harden turnover gave the Heat the ball back with 13 seconds remaining, James ran the pick-and-roll with Chris Bosh that resulted with Howard in front of him.
Had Miami needed two points, it would have been a perfect outcome. Instead, needing a three, Howard's length was just enough to disrupt the game's best player into a miss.
Houston's victory snaps a seven-game Heat winning streak in this series during the Big Three era. That run predated the arrivals of Howard and Harden, themselves a pairing that perhaps never would have happened without James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. With Howard and Harden ranking among the two most picked-apart superstars in this league, Tuesday night was something of a proving ground to gain them respect among the NBA's elite.
Rocky finish aside, these Rockets acquitted themselves well. They shot 51.3 percent from the floor, dominated the rebound battle and consistently out-paced Miami's starting five. Wade was the only member of Miami's starting unit with a plus/minus better than -15.
Howard, easily the most criticized Rocket, was the fulcrum on both ends of the floor for Houston's stellar starting unit. Although he didn't have a block, Howard consistently altered shots near the rim and bullied a fangless Bosh down low. He finished the game with a vintage 22 points and 16 rebounds, even draining six of his eight shots at the free-throw line.
Domination down low was the overarching theme of the night—Howard or otherwise. Terrence Jones picked up his second straight double-double, scoring eight of his 19 points in the fourth quarter and grabbing 12 rebounds. Harden, who couldn't buy a bucket from distance, created for himself and others off the dribble en route to a 21-point, 11-assist outing.
The Heat and Rockets came into Tuesday night with a combined three losses since Feb. 1, streaks that earned Erik Spoelstra and Kevin McHale respective Coach of the Month awards.
But the Heat were also on the second night of a back-to-back, starting a three-game road trip that will take them through Texas and to Chicago by Sunday. Even though they kept the game close, there were certain points in the game where the tired legs showed.
Coming off a game where they knocked down 16-of-28 from beyond the arc, the Heat seemingly left their stroke in South Beach. Miami missed 14 of its first 15 three-pointers and finished the game just 7-of-27 from distance. Shane Battier clanked all five of his attempts and Mario Chalmers couldn't find the range from anywhere, as the Heat starting lineup went without a three.
A night after he tied a career-high with eight three-pointers, James missed all three he attempted. The defending NBA MVP still managed to score 22 points on a still-efficient 9-of-18 from the floor, but it was obvious he wasn't quite at his best. James was just 1-of-7 after the halftime break, and his one rebound was a season-low.
As James told reporters after the game, via Bleacher Report's Ethan J. Skolnick:
Wade and Michael Beasley both led the way for Miami with 24 points, doing most of their damage against the second unit. Even as they were playing with exhausted legs, the Heat's second unit pushed them back into the game throughout. Houston outscored Miami by a combined 16 points in the starter-heavy first and third quarters, but the Heat stayed in the game thanks to a huge bench scoring margin.
The Rockets' other areas of deficiency are the same as they have been all season. Struggling with Miami's trap-heavy defense and with their own poor decisions, Houston turned the ball over 18 times. Those mistakes helped directly lead to 23 points, and the Heat scored 22 on the fastbreak.
Despite all the factors that went into the win, Houston still has to come out feeling great. The Rockets are at least temporarily a half-game ahead of the Clippers for the No. 3 seed in the Western Conference, and they're still just 4.5 games away from the top overall seed.
Meanwhile, Miami blew its shot at nestling closer to the Pacers for the Eastern No. 1 seed. Indiana's loss to Golden State on Tuesday temporarily tied the two teams in the loss column. But for now, like always, the Heat can rest their head on the fact that the true questions won't be answered until May and June.
|Shane Battier, SF||D|
|LeBron James, SF||B|
|Chris Bosh, C||D|
|Mario Chalmers, PG||D|
|Dwyane Wade, SG||B|
|Udonis Haslem, PF||C|
|Chris Andersen, PF||B-|
|Michael Beasley, SF||B|
|Norris Cole, PG||C-|
|Ray Allen, SG||C+|
|Terrence Jones, PF||A-|
|Chandler Parsons, SF||C|
|Dwight Howard, C||A|
|Patrick Beverley, PG||B|
|James Harden, SG||B|
|Donatas Motiejunas, PF||D|
|Jordan Hamilton, SF||C|
|Omer Asik, C||C|
|Jeremy Lin, PG||C|
Players of the Game: LeBron James and Dwight Howard
Efficiency. With all of the plaudits rightfully placed at LeBron James' feet, perhaps that noun more than any other doesn't get enough credit. James is on the precipice of setting a career-high field goal percentage for his seventh straight season, coming into Tuesday night at 58.3 percent—an insane rate for a high-volume perimeter player.
Even if we acknowledge the standard field-goal percentage isn't a perfect metric, our more advanced shooting stats tell the same story. LeBron has improved his true shooting percentage and effective shooting percentage every year he's spent in Miami, and his current rates in both metrics dwarf anything Michael Jordan ever did.
All of the subtle improvements James has made to his game have been on display the past two nights. The eight straight three-pointers against Charlotte. The series of driving layups that have been the source of his efficiency for more than a decade. Taking advantage of poor Chandler Parsons in the post.
Even if Kevin Durant is the NBA's most natural scorer (and he is), no player has the same number of ways to beat and demoralize the opposition as LeBron. There was a particular double team at the end of the first half, where Omer Asik and Parsons trapped LeBron near the corner, with Patrick Beverley rotating in the middle to cover the rolling Udonis Haslem.
James had an obvious pass. Mario Chalmers was standing at the top of the circle, wide open with his hand in the air. Instead, with one subtle hesitation dribble, he was banging his way past Asik down the baseline and driving to the basket for an easy layup.
Things weren't as seamless in the second half, sure. But, the lesson, as always: LeBron James is better at basketball than any of us are at anything.
And, to be fair, the same could probably be said about Dwight Howard. Heading into Tuesday night, this was the exact type of game that could have been used as an indictment of Howard. The Heat, despite Chris Bosh's best effort, are not equipped to handle a dominant big of Howard's caliber in the middle.
A disappearing act could have played into the narrative of Howard shrinking in big moments. Instead, he came through with a very solid outing, working the boards and bullying his way to 22 points underneath. At this point in his career, we can probably stop expecting Howard to take some additional leap and become a consistent, overpowering force offensively.
But the Rockets have gotten exactly what they paid for with Howard all year. Maybe it's time to start scrubbing the memory of his lost Lakers season and reconsider where he stands in the league's hierarchy.
The Heat stay in Texas for the second game of their three-game road trip, traveling to San Antonio for an NBA Finals rematch against the Spurs on Thursday. The Rockets get the only reprieve of their early-March schedule on Wednesday when they play the Magic in Orlando.
Follow Tyler Conway on Twitter: