2015 NBA Playoffs: Is Superman Back for the Rockets?

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CC7Ym9aUMAABP4bWas Dwight Howard’s strong showing in Game 1 a sign of things to come for the remainder of the postseason?

The Houston Rockets topped the Dallas Mavericks 118-108 in Game 1 of their first round series behind a balanced attack, including 15 points from Corey Brewer (13 in the 4th) and 11 points and 7 rebounds from Josh Smith off the bench. Jason ‘The Jet’ Terry was revved up and ripping the runway, as he burnt his former team with 16 points and four made threes.

MVP-hopeful James Harden scored 24 points (4-11 FG) and facilitated to perfection, dishing out a playoff-high 11 assists in the victory. In typical Harden fashion, he netted over half of his points from the charity stripe, going 15-17 from the free-throw line.

But which Rocket left a lasting impression on me last night? None other than Dwight Howard, who looked the spry and dominant big man we had grown accustomed to seeing in Orlando.

Howard, who scored 11 points and blocked 5 shots in only 17 minutes of action due to foul trouble, was wrecking havoc on both ends of the floor, catching lobs and swatting shots with absolutely no regard for human life.

Howard was unable to fully impose his will as he was hindered by foul difficulties, but if his play throughout the duration of this postseason comes close to resembling that of last night’s, Houston may command more respect from fans as a contender than they’ve  initially have. Some remain skeptical of the Rockets’ ability to compete with the Western Conference’s upper-echelon, specifically due to Harden’s reliance on the free-throw line and their predictable offense, but having a healthy and authoritative Howard gives their team a whole new dynamic, making them very 

Despite the fact that Howard was absent for majority of the season, solid play from him in the postseason shouldn’t astonish anyone. In last year’s playoffs, Howard was the Rockets’ best player, averaging 26 points, 13.7 rebounds and 2.8 blocks per game in their first round matchup with the Portland Trail Blazers. Howard grappled with a knee issue this year and it made the prospect of attaining those numbers seem a little unreasonable, but if his play from last night is any indication of things to come, he may easily duplicate or possibly even surpass those statistics from last postseason.

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Not only does a healthy Howard significantly lighten Harden’s load, but it more than makes up for the absence of key rotation players Patrick Beverley and Donatas Motiejunas. Howard also provides the Rockets with one of the strongest defensive anchors in the league, an enormous target out of the pick-and-roll, and another way to manufacture open three-point shots by playing inside-out. 

Howard has been slammed for his inability to refine his post-game despite having access to resources such as Hakeem Olajuwon and Kevin McHale, but last night Howard confidently caught the ball on the block and made a strong move (albeit against Amar’e Stoudemire,) and converted on a hoop.

Houston wants to continue to see this from Howard, especially if Dallas is going to try to contain him with a smaller defender like Stoudemire,  who has some of the creakiest knees in the NBA.

Howard did get gassed during his stints on the floor last night, but if Howard’s fatigue is a product of arduous play, McHale and the Rockets’ coaching staff probably don’t have much of an issue with that. 

 What to expect in Game Two

Houston:  For the Rockets, I think you can expect Brewer, who was especially great in the fourth quarter, to regress to the mean as Dallas will devote some more defensive attention to the transition terror. Houston should also anticipate seeing a substantial uptick in Harden’s field goal attempts and hopefully shooting percentage, as he went only 4-11 in Game 1 with his main focus being on distribution. The Rockets should continue to exploit Dirk Nowitzki’s horrific defense by building on Terrence Jones’ strong Game 1 performance (19 points, 9 rebounds, 6 assists in 34 minutes) and having him constantly attack Nowitzki’s shoddy “D.”

Houston should be prepped to combat what will be a well prepared and hungry Mavericks squad, and look to protect their homecourt and take a 2-0 series lead before they shift scenes to Dallas.

Dallas:  For the Mavericks expect their emphasis to be on controlling the pace and attacking in transition selectively. Houston was able to race out to a sizable lead early in the game by attacking Dallas’ sluggish transition defense and getting the crowd into it. Once the Mavericks were able to slow things down and execute in the half-court, we saw how potent their offense could be.

This all came with leading scorer Monta Ellis playing pretty poorly, as he shot 5-16 from the field and had several defensive gaffes in the 4th quarter that enabled Brewer to get open from downtown and put the game out of reach.

The Mavericks finally got some strong play from point guard Rajon Rondo, who has been sporadic ever since his arrival in Dallas. Rondo dropped 15 points (11 in the 2nd quarter) and 5 assists in the loss, and his 2nd quarter outburst prompted hundreds to Tweet out #PlayoffRondo, as they excitedly watched him get into somewhat of a groove. Dallas will need Rondo to have a performance equal to this one, as well as some more focused play from Ellis if they plan to snag Game 2 from Houston.

Dallas should also look to employ the zone-ish defense we saw throughout Game 1 more often, but they have to be careful as a zone invites teams to shoot three-pointers and no team would more readily accept that invitation than the constant three-point hoisting Houston Rockets. 

Lastly, I think we’ll see Dallas stress the importance of finishing their runs. In Game 1, the Mavericks often trimmed the lead down from anywhere to 7-10 points, but the Rockets would respond with a quick 5-0, or 6-0 spurt that bumped the lead back up to 15 or 16 points. The Mavericks must show refusal to squander the momentum, and really put pressure on Harden and company to offer a response to their scoring bursts. 

Game 2 Prediction 

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I think Dallas will push Houston to the brink, but ultimately the Rockets will prevail behind an MVP-like performance from James Harden along with some big-time shots from Corey Brewer and or Jason Terry. Expect this contest to be hotly contested though, as coaching genius Rick Carlisle will make the necessary tweaks to correct Dallas’ mistakes from Game 1. I believe Harden will finally have that breakout postseason performance fans have been dying to see since he’s arrived in Houston, and I believe Howard will continue to show the flashes of brilliance we saw in Game 1. 

 

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