During a recent chat with USA Today's Sam Amick, Dwight Howard insisted all is well between him and James Harden, and the two Houston Rockets stars have the rest of the season and playoffs to “figure out how to make this thing work.”
"I have no hate in my blood for this man, you know? For what?," Howard told Amick. "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."
He may feel differently about his bearded brother-in-arms after the way the Rockets closed out a 111-107 loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder on Thursday.
One thing is clear: These two can’t simply wait to get it together.
With the clock winding under seven seconds in the fourth quarter and Houston down by a bucket, Harden flicked an errant left-handed lob off the dribble to Howard, who couldn't corral the ball from two OKC defenders. Dion Waiters deflected the pass, and it ended up in the hands of Russell Westbrook, who drew Harden's sixth foul and all but put the game to bed with a pair of free throws.
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For both of Houston's cornerstones, the team's latest trip to Chesapeake Energy Arena was a mixed bag, just like the rocky 2015-16 campaign they've led in Space City.
Harden stuffed the stat sheet with 24 points, four steals, seven rebounds and a career-high 16 assists. He pushed the Rockets out to a game-high nine-point lead in the first quarter, despite scoring just one bucket therein. Down the stretch, he put his team in position to tie or take the lead by setting up Jason Terry for a three and draining one of his own.
But Harden's two turnovers in crunch time (out of five total) put Houston up against it. His fouling out, as embarrassing as it was on its own, came courtesy of the same lurching defense for which Harden has been roasted time and again.
Howard's hands weren't exactly clean in that regard either. The three-time Defensive Player of the Year occasionally played the part of matador in the middle. With three minutes to go in the fourth quarter, he paved a path for Steven Adams (eight points) to finish off a Russell Westbrook pick-and-roll with an uncontested slam, tying the score at 99-all.
Within the next two minutes-plus, though, Howard blocked a shot by Kevin Durant (23 points, seven rebounds, four assists) and denied an aggressive drive to the rim from Westbrook (21 points, 13 rebounds, 15 assists).
On the other end, Howard (16 points, 13 rebounds) was efficient...when the Rockets could get him the ball. He converted seven of eight from the field (and two of three from the line) but could've done much more had his teammates made better entry passes to the post on several occasions.
Harden, though, did his part. Of Howard's seven makes, five came off passes from Harden—six, if you count Harden's second-quarter miss that led to an offensive rebound and tip-in for Howard.
The numbers back up Howard's assertion that the Rockets can thrive when he and Harden are on the same page. According to nbawowy.com, the Rockets are much stronger when both share the court than they are with one, the other or neither.
The discrepancy in negative performance between the two merely supports what's clear when watching the Rockets play: They're a team built far more around Harden's drives than Howard's post-ups. According to B/R Insights, the Rockets came into Tuesday's action having scored 0.9 points per possession off Harden isolations and a mere 0.5 points per possession with Howard on the block.
“The way the [NBA] game is played [now], it’s all outside-in, it’s threes, it’s super fast," Howard told Amick. "It’s really like we’re dinosaurs, and they’re trying to extinct us. But the Ice Age will not come, and we will not be extinct."
Not if bigs adapt their skills to the modern game. Howard, despite lacking a decent shooting touch or array of traditional post-up moves, has played the part of a modern-day center. His ultra-athletic abilities have allowed him to play above the rim, and he’s long been one of the league’s elite finishers in the pick-and-roll.
|Harden and Howard in Pick-and-Roll|
|Harden (Ball Handler)||25.2%||0.97||49.3||91.1%|
|Howard (Roll Man)||10.1%||1.10||62||71.4%|
From a pure basketball perspective, Harden and Howard should be two peas in a pod. The Rockets know that all too well.
Last season, they won 56 games and cracked the Western Conference Finals for the first time in 18 years. The year prior, they won 54 games before suffering a first-round upset against the Portland Trail Blazers.
The sailing hasn't been nearly as smooth this time. At 35-36, the Rockets, the West's No. 2 seed in 2015, sit just a half-game up on the Utah Jazz in the race for the conference's final playoff berth. Both teams are playing for the right to match up with the Golden State Warriors, who ousted the Rockets from the conference finals in five games last spring.
Howard, though, still believes his squad can roll deep into May and June.
"It takes time, you know?” he said of his relationship with Harden. "It takes time. If we can just come together like we’re supposed to and like we want to, then I’m telling you, we can win a championship."
This year? Good luck, what with the Warriors and San Antonio Spurs fighting for supremacy at the top and the Thunder and Los Angeles Clippers sparring on the second tier.
Next year? Not if Howard, at 30, takes his remaining talents elsewhere once he opts out of his contract this summer. He believes he can still dominate, heartened in part by a former teammate's individual success in the Windy City.
"Everybody thought a couple years ago that Pau [Gasol] couldn’t play," Howard told Amick. "He gets to Chicago, and it’s just a different situation, a different offense, a different scheme. And he was able to thrive. So I think players thrive in the situations that they may be put in."
Howard may yet thrive with the Rockets down the stretch of this season. And if Houston can sneak up the standings, he could play a pivotal part in another postseason push. For all of Howard's falloff during the regular season, his playoff production has been on point since he left southern California for Texas.
|Howard's Per-36-Minute Production in Houston, Regular Season vs. Playoffs|
With some of that old magic along with a hefty helping of Harden's all-world offensive excellence, the Rockets may yet salvage their season with some springtime music between them.
Linsanity Strikes Again
Allergies aren't the only afflictions that follow the spring thaw. So, too, does Linsanity.
At least, it has this year.
On Monday, Jeremy Lin scored 29 points off the bench to lead the Charlotte Hornets back from a 21-point deficit to beat the San Antonio Spurs, 91-88. The next night, he chipped in 21 more to help the Hornets fend off the Brooklyn Nets on the road, 105-100.
"Jeremy Lin was huge for us," Nicolas Batum, who scored a team-high 23 points, said afterward, per the Associated Press' Michael Scotto (h/t NBA.com). "In the third and fourth, he stepped up again for us. He did it last night in the second quarter to give us life, and he did it again tonight. I don't think we would have won that game if he didn't step up again for us."
Batum had a hand in Lin's second straight strong outing, putting his own modesty aside.
"He made Jeremy Lin play really well again tonight," head coach Steve Clifford said, per the Associated Press.
The more of these nights the Hornets can squeeze out of Lin, the former Big Apple sensation, the higher they'll be able to climb in the Eastern Conference. At 41-30, Charlotte sits in a three-way tie with the Atlanta Hawks and Boston Celtics for the East's No. 4 seed.
The Hornets, though, have already lost their season series against the Hawks (1-3) and Celtics (0-2, with one meeting remaining). Only a better record outright would put Charlotte ahead of the pack.
With the way he's been playing, Lin could be the one to get them there.
Miami's Guards Get Hot in the Big Easy
Is the Miami Heat's glitzy backcourt (finally) coming together? That depends on the perspective.
Tuesday's 113-99 win over the New Orleans Pelicans came courtesy of greater equilibrium between Dwyane Wade and Goran Dragic. The two combined for 46 points and eight assists while taking turns piloting Miami's attack. Wade (25 points) wound his way to the hoop in the half court, boosting the Heat's 50-44 edge on points in the paint. Dragic (21 points) pushed the pace and helped Miami score 16 points in transition.
Together, they topped 20 points in the same game for just the sixth time this season. Each of those times, they did their damage against a sub-.500 squad, including a Pelicans team that now has Anthony Davis seated next to Tyreke Evans and Eric Gordon (among others) on its list of those lost for the season.
Pessimism aside, the Heat seem to be pleased with how Dragic is adapting to his role.
"Goran has understood; he is the starting point guard of this team," Wade said afterward while also praising Luol Deng (five points, four assists), per the Miami Herald's Ethan Skolnick. "This is his team as well."
Since the All-Star Game, the Heat have played at the league's 14th-fastest pace (99.21 possessions per game), well ahead of their second-slowest tempo (94.67 possessions per game) before the break. Dragic's comfort, combined with Wade's Father Time-defying production, could give Miami just the boost it needs to upset the East's apple cart later this spring.
Kobe Comes Through for Lakers (and Fans)
After missing six of the Los Angeles Lakers’ last eight home games, Kobe Bryant gave price-gouged fans at Staples Center some bang for their buck. The retiring legend scored 17 of his 20 points in the second half to propel the Lakers to a 107-100 win over the M.A.S.H.-unit Memphis Grizzlies.
To be sure, it was no slam dunk that those clad in purple and gold would get their money’s worth. Bryant missed his first five shots of the night before getting on the board with a long three in the second quarter.
Come the third, the Mamba was ready to strike. He poured in 12 points during a span of just over five minutes during the period to put the Lakers ahead, 71-65.
It wasn’t a total throwback for Bryant, though. Rather than leave the 37-year-old to seal the deal down the stretch, Lakers head coach Byron Scott pulled his All-Star with 4:20 left in the game to put in rookie point guard Marcelo Huertas.
Truth be told, L.A.’s next generation did most of the heavy lifting. Huertas led with seven assists. Jordan Clarkson dropped a team-high 22 points on 8-of-13 shooting. Julius Randle (13 points, 14 rebounds, five assists) tallied his 30th double-double of the season. D’Angelo Russell (11 points) went 5-of-10 from the field before bruising his shin in the third quarter.
But those guys will have many more opportunities to wow the downtown crowd. Bryant, on the other hand, is down to his last 12 games before he hangs up his sneakers for good. That makes every remaining scoring burst—and the tickets to see them—all the more valuable.