Houston Rockets Need Dominant Dwight Howard to Avoid 1st-Round Upset

Stephen Babb@@StephenBabbFeatured ColumnistApril 22, 2014

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The Portland Trail Blazers' LaMarcus Aldridge was better than he's ever been in Game 1 against the Houston Rockets. Hopefully, Dwight Howard was taking notes.

He'll have to do his best impression for his Rockets to survive this series. If that sounds at all alarmist, it should. Houston doesn't have the momentum it owned coming into this series. And it probably doesn't have the talent edge we thought it did.

Somewhere between assuming the best about James Harden and straight-up underrating these Trail Blazers, optimistic Rockets fans may have gotten ahead of themselves. This is going to be a long and difficult series.

It's going to be the kind of series where adjustments alone don't cut it.

Portland has legitimate superstars who apparently aren't intimidated by the whole playoffs vibe. They came ready not just to perform, but to dominate. Houston's best will have to respond in kind. Pointing the finger at Harden's 8-of-28 shooting performance is all too easy of a solution.

Yes, he'll probably shoot better next time around. But Wesley Matthews might be better than his 6-of-16 Game 1. Parsons may be worse. These things have a way of evening out.

As much as these two teams rely on three-pointers, Game 1 proved this series will be decided in the paint.

To Howard, that means more touches in the post—a theme with which you're probably familiar if you've paid much attention to Howard over the last couple of years. According to Ultimate Rockets' Jonathan Feigen, Howard had this to say on Tuesday: "We have to play inside out, play their bigs and make it a long night for those guys. I have to demand the ball, get it and go to work."

Right attitude, wrong idea.

Turning things around won't happen with Howard's back to the basket, not exclusively anyway. CBS Sports' Matt Moore explains the problem with that approach:

According to Synergy Sports, the Rockets ran 13 post-up plays for Howard [in Game 1]. He scored just 10 points in those sets and drew no fouls. Conversely, the Rockets managed to get no touches for Howard in the pick and roll.

Once again, and I hate to keep hammering this, but Howard is infinitely better in the pick and roll than in the post. In the post this season Howard scored .751 points per possession. That's horrible, 29th percentile. In the pick and roll, Howard scored 1.28 points per possession, 96th percentile. I don't know how else to put this.

Dwight Howard does not need more touches in the post. It's not that Howard doesn't have a post game. It's not that playing inside out isn't a good strategy. But how they play inside out is important. Howard's been on this kick for two years. But if they keep going to Howard and if he doesn't make a major improvement in very little time, this could get bad. The Rockets can't afford to go down 0-2 at home.

To some, this might sound like a pedantic matter of small-beans X's and O's, but it could also be the difference between Howard being good—which he was in Game 1—and Howard being dominant. Remember, he was just 9-of-21 from the floor. That would be respectable for a perimeter player, but it's no sign of a dominant post presence.

That suggests Moore might be on to something. This isn't about Howard calling for more touches and going to work—it's about the context in which he gets those touches. He may be better off getting a handful of them when rolling to the basket.

This shouldn't be especially difficult for the Rockets. They have the pieces. Harden and Jeremy Lin are both perfectly capable of running pick-and-rolls—they boast passing ability and strong decision making alike.

One key will be having the patience to let the pick-and-roll develop.

For a team that likes quick shots, setting up the pick-and-roll may at times seem too cumbersome. And when it does happen, it's important that Howard's involved and rolls hard to the bucket. It can't be a mere means to an end of finding three-point shooters, no matter how much Houston loves feeding them.

One way or another, Howard has a point about making Aldridge exert some energy on the defensive end, per Feigen: "We have to go right back at him. You have to make him play defense and make him use his energy on defense. Make him have to run around and guard."

So long as the Trail Blazers rely primarily on Robin Lopez to check Howard, more touches for Howard don't necessarily equate to more work for Aldridge.

And that hints at a broader commentary on Howard's offensive game. If he's going to be truly dominant, he can't look to throw up shots every time he touches the ball. He has to be willing to make plays, sometimes deferring. He has to emulate other accomplished big men such as Tim Duncan and Marc Gasol.

If Howard really wants to make Aldridge work, that might actually mean more touches for power forward Terrence Jones, who was an efficient 6-of-10 in Game 1. Jones has proved capable of having big games, and his quickness could give Aldridge some fits.

So if we really want to put Howard's logic to the test, we should insist on two caveats to his thoughts on playing inside-out: First, it should incorporate more of the pick-and-roll, and second, it may require Howard to let his teammates get more involved.

The key to making Aldridge move around isn't a post-heavy attack—it's an attack characterized by motion and ball movement.

A reimagined offensive approach won't count for much if the Rockets are unable to contain Aldridge, though.

On that account, the onus falls on Howard once again.

Feigen writes that Houston and Portland both expect Howard to defend Aldridge more frequently in Game 2:

Trail Blazers forward LaMarcus Aldridge expected to see the Rockets use Dwight Howard to defend him much more often in Game 2 than they did on Sunday. Hearing that Howard said he would be on Aldridge more did not change Aldridge's plans.

'We've said that, too. We figured they would change it up and would probably put him on me more and they would probably bring him baseline (to help) more. It's the playoffs. Teams make changes. We're going to try to be ready for anything. I don't think it changes anything for me. I'm still going to try to play the same way and I'm still going to try to take the same shots.'

If Howard really wants to put his stamp on the series, this is where it will happen. Regardless of how many points he scores, the real test for Houston is keeping Aldridge from going off like he did in the series opener.

Howard will need to keep Aldridge from doing so much damage right at the basket. Here's LA's shot chart from Game 1.
Howard will need to keep Aldridge from doing so much damage right at the basket. Here's LA's shot chart from Game 1.NBA.com

This is an opportunity for Howard to do more than fulfill a coaching adjustment. It's a chance for him to show some tangible leadership.

As Yahoo Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski put it, "Howard has to come to understand the most important lesson in leadership. The Rockets won't listen to the franchise star now as much they'll watch him. In crisis and calm, this is forever the burden of a superstar."

Watching him tangle with the other team's best scorer is an important first step.

This is the real challenge to which Howard must rise. He can't get caught up in how many touches he's getting. He has to set a tone—not a scoring record.

We know the Rockets are capable of getting their points. They've done it all season long, with or without Howard playing a prominent role. By this point, we're far less certain of this team's focus, its ability to execute in late-game situations, its willingness to defend for 48 minutes.

Howard has his work cut out for him in each of those respects, and Wojnarowski is correct. His teammates will be watching.

So will we.


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