Dwight Howard still believes the Houston Rockets are legitimate championship contenders despite the fact they are on the playoff fringe heading into the homestretch of the regular season. He also knows clicking with superstar teammate James Harden is essential to any miracle playoff run.
Sam Amick of USA Today passed along comments Tuesday from Howard, who's averaging 14.5 points and 12.1 rebounds for the 35-35 Rockets. The 30-year-old veteran doesn't care about the outside perception of the team's chances in the top-heavy Western Conference:
Regardless of how our season is going so far, regardless of the fact that we haven't played up to our expectations, I really believe that we have a championship caliber team. Nobody else has to believe it, and that's fine. The whole world can be against us. But if those 15 guys in the locker room believe that we can win, then we will win. There's no doubt about it. We had a great season last year, and the reason why we were able to come in the playoffs and do what we did is because we believed.
The Rockets reached the conference finals last season before getting eliminated in five games by the eventual champion Golden State Warriors.
Houston is caught in the background this year, though. The spotlight has been hogged by the Warriors and the San Antonio Spurs, which are a combined 122-18, with the remaining mainstream attention focused on the Cleveland Cavaliers, Oklahoma City Thunder and Los Angeles Clippers.
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The Rockets are currently embroiled in a fierce four-team battle for the final three playoff berths in the West. The Portland Trail Blazers, Dallas Mavericks and Utah Jazz are the other teams involved, and one of them will likely be on the outside looking in when the dust settles.
For Houston to succeed, there's no doubt Howard and Harden must work perfectly in tandem. The eight-time All-Star center downplayed any potential issues between the pair to USA Today:
People feel ... like we hate each other. I have no hate in my blood for this man, you know? For what? He came from nothing. We both came from nothing. And we're doing something that we love. We grew up playing this game for fun, and we had big dreams of making it to the NBA. So I would never hate this man because I know what it took for me to get here, and he made it. So I want him to succeed. I want us to succeed. I just - before coming here—I watched endless hours of YouTube videos on James Harden, before he had the beard. I watched all that stuff, because I'm like, 'Dang, this boy, he's got so much talent.'
He also understands the onus is on them to maximize the Rockets' potential: "We both have to figure out how we're going to make this thing work. It's on us. We've got the rest of the season, and the playoffs, and we can do it. It's a mindset. It's a mentality. And the whole team will fall in line when me and him are on that same page and the team sees that we're strong together."
Brian T. Smith of the Houston Chronicle isn't buying what Howard is selling, however:
Ultimately, the Rockets face an extremely uphill battle if they are going to make another deep playoff run. It starts with getting away from the seventh or eighth seed because it's difficult to believe any team is capable of beating both the Warriors and Spurs to win the West.
Working their way into the No. 6 seed would at least create an opportunity for them to make some noise. Most of that would come down to Howard and Harden working together on a nightly basis like Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson or Kawhi Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge.
Based on how the season has gone so far, it's fair to call that a long shot.