It's not often a superstar like Dwight Howard gets a chance to reform his legacy a full decade into his career. But if the Houston Rockets big man takes the fight to Portland Trail Blazers forward LaMarcus Aldridge, he can do exactly that.
And he might even save his team in the process.
Aldridge torched the Rockets for 46 points in Game 1, stealing home-court advantage and forcing everyone to re-evaluate the widely held expectation that Portland had little chance to compete in the series.
One way or another, Houston must make Aldridge the focal point of its defensive attack in Game 2. And if Howard wants to change the conversation about himself—if he wants to build a legacy that doesn't involve him being some kind of clownish boob—he needs to be the guy applying said focus.
All he has to do is go check Aldridge.
This is the kind of moment great players (or at least players we like) relish: a challenge to stop the unstoppable.
Per Ben Golliver of Sports Illustrated, the Rockets have exhausted their other options. Nobody was up to the task of slowing Aldridge in Game 1: "Aldridge punished Terrence Jones, James Harden and any other undersized defenders that Houston threw at him. He guessed during his post-game comments that the Rockets will start bracketing him with two defenders in Game 2."
Forget bracketing, and don't overthink things, Rockets. Unleash D12. It's the only way.
Unfortunately, Howard doesn't quite see it that way. According to his postgame comments (via ESPN), D12 would prefer to wear down Aldridge on the other end: "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."
What Howard's proposing isn't totally crazy. There's no question the Rockets have to do something to wear Aldridge down. But dumping the rock into Howard—who is a solid post-up option, despite his lack of a reliable move or ability to harness his considerable strength as well as he should—just isn't the way to go.
It's not a great percentage play for him, as every other play type yields a higher individual number of points per possession, according to Synergy Sports (subscription required):
|Play Type||Points Per Play||NBA Rank|
|PnR Roll Man||1.28||5|
And by extension, repeated post-ups for Howard are a poor percentage play for the Rockets' offense as a whole. Such an approach would slow things down, decrease movement and result in fewer scattered transition opportunities.
Besides, Portland's defense yields high-percentage looks all the time, and Houston didn't have any trouble scoring in Game 1.
Howard isn't miles off-base in his thinking, but the better solution is for him to simply clamp down on Aldridge at the other end.
Practically speaking, there could even be a valuable secondary effect of the Howard-on-Aldridge plan.
By attaching a motivated Howard to Aldridge, the Rockets could create a dangerously inviting mismatch, putting someone like Terrence Jones on Robin Lopez. Maybe that would be too big a size difference for the Blazers to ignore. Maybe they'd toss the ball in to their center in hopes of exploiting the seeming opportunity.
Gregg Popovich baited the Golden State Warriors into using post-up possessions involving Harrison Barnes on Tony Parker with the same tactic last season. Barnes scored some, but his repeated touches meant guys like Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson weren't getting shots. It was a smart move, one that essentially tricked the Dubs into thinking they were playing effective offense when the opposite was true. (h/t B/R's Josh Martin on that thought.)
The same ploy could work against the Blazers.
As good as Aldridge is, it would be hard for Terry Stotts to ignore the appeal of a Lopez-on-Jones mismatch. Houston could toss Omer Asik out there to handle Lopez if he gets a few buckets on Jones, but why would it want to? The whole idea is to make Lopez the offensive focal point at the expense of guys like Damian Lillard and, of course, Aldridge.
That's the strategic angle, but the key issue here is the one raised earlier—about Howard getting the exceptionally rare chance to save his team and himself by accepting the challenge of guarding Aldridge.
Howard rehabilitated his image a bit this season, a task he started by taking less money than the Los Angeles Lakers could have paid him in order to join a winner. He subsequently kept clashes with high-profile teammates to a minimum and, critically, played really well for a team that won 54 games.
Essentially, he suppressed many of the instincts that sullied his final months with the Orlando Magic and poisoned his every second with the Lakers.
Now, he's got a chance to take the final step in the long road back from his extended stay in Pariah-ville.
He can show he's the same elite defensive force he used to be. Not in the team-anchor sense, but in the "don't worry guys, I got this" sense.
We all love that action-hero approach to defense, don't we? Howard is the guy in the secluded cabin, off the grid until some suit shows up and says, "We need you Dwight. Why? Because you're the best."
There's nothing better than a star player taking on the challenge of individually shutting down another star. It's no secret that defense is a team endeavor, and there's little doubt Aldridge will regress from his 46-point output no matter who guards him.
But if Howard goes out in Game 2 and matches up with Aldridge, he could create a turning point in his career narrative. He could make us all remember the days when we talked about his game before his attitude, the days when we thought of him as a world-destroying defensive force before we thought of him as an attention-hungry prima donna.
Hey, remember when Howard was the most ferocious defender we'd seen in years? Remember when he could single-handedly elevate a so-so Orlando Magic team to contender status by utterly dominating on D? He has the chance to move that chapter back to the front of his NBA biography.
Not everybody gets a chance like that, but Howard has one now, and he needs to take it. Both for his sake and the Rockets'.