It’s finally real. Really real. Not preseason real, not signed contract real, not Official Twitter Announcement real. This is actually happening, and it’s happening in Houston. Dwight Howard played the first game that really counts with the Houston Rockets, and this is the real Dwight Howard we’re talking about. The Rockets looked shaky in the first half, James Harden’s back tightened on him and Patrick Beverley suffered an injury to the ribs. The Bobcats were tenacious and more talented than they’ve been in years, but it wasn’t enough to hold back Houston. The Harden and Howard era has finally, really begun.
So what did Dwight Howard do exactly? He matched his career high in rebounds, pulling down 26 in 35 minutes, which is the kind of thing typically reserved for video games. Not only did he play for less than 36 minutes, something that will pay huge dividends if it continues, but he made every minute count, scoring 17 points on 14 shots and throwing in a couple assists and blocks to go with it. His presence inside made players change their shots and change their game, which was a large part of why Houston was able to hang onto their tenuous lead, even when nobody could score. Last season, James Harden made an early statement. This season, it looks like Dwight’s turn.
James Harden’s still with the team, by the way. He didn’t look like it in the first half, missing all of his three pointers, most of his two pointers, and turning the ball over repeatedly. He woke up in the second half, sinking shots and making plays. Most notably, Harden and Howard became inseparable as the game progressed, working a vicious two-man pick and roll game that resulted in a pair of Dwight dunks. Harden’s three point line lob to an aerial Howard was the highlight of the game, and a promise of this pair’s potential. Harden managed to make it to 21 points on 16 shots, amazing given that at one point he was 2-12 with 10 points.
It wasn’t all good news, however. Patrick Beverley went down with an injury to the ribs of as yet unknown severity, which could potentially bode very ill. Jeremy Lin is perfectly capable of picking up the slack, but Aaron Brooks doesn’t look ready for much playing time at all. He didn’t ruin things in his 10 minutes on the court, but he also didn’t shoot, rebound or score. He had only an assist and a steal to offset two turnovers and three fouls, which isn’t a good look for a backup point guard.
Jeremy Lin took advantage of his 31 minutes, though, scoring 16 points on 5-7 shooting, including a 2-2 performance from three point land. He only had two assists and offset those with two turnovers, but he wasn’t alone on the turnover train. (In fact, the team had a mind-blowing 18 turnovers compared to the Bobcats’ 7.) Like in the preseason, Lin is more aggressive when getting to the rack, even though he tends to get jostled a bit for it. As the team gels, expect Lin to feast on second string players more and more.
Nobody could hit a three for Houston for long stretches, with one exception. Francisco Garcia makes his living by shooting corner threes, and he made quite a living tonight. He shot 5-9 from deep, and racked up 19 total points. Garcia’s a seasoned vet who knows his role, and he’s happy to stick to it. His drives and risks taken were sparing, and that helped hold off a very stubborn Cats team.
Ömer Aşık also used his primary skill to great effect, grabbing 14 rebounds in his 26 minutes and effectively patrolling the paint. Al Jefferson was still able to have his way from time to time, but you can live with a 6-19 shooting night from the opposing team’s best player. Where Aşık failed to deliver was on the offensive end, hitting only 1 of 5 shots, and missing a couple easy dunks and tip ins. The overall dynamic of the Howard-Aşık frontcourt is still bizarre, with an offensively gifted team finding much of its force blunted. On the other hand, the Bobcats struggled to score against the twin towers, except for Josh McRoberts, their resident stretch four. This experiment will continue, but it seems poorly suited against the 1 in 4 out offense much of the league is running. It also seems to result in sloppy, low-scoring games, which I’m pretty sure is the most-liked form of basketball.
Omri Casspi and Chandler Parsons also participated. Parsons participated a lot, to the tune of a game-high 39 minutes. Unfortunately, except for a couple highlight dunks and layins, he had a quiet night. He wasn’t exactly bad, just largely invisible, in a way we’re increasingly used to. he had 10 points on 11 shots, largely due to missing all 3 three pointers he tried. His 5 rebounds, 3 assists, a steal and a block to go with no turnovers make for an acceptable if not exactly desirable evening. Casspi turned in the small size of that line, going for 4 points on 6 shots (missing both three pointers), picking up 4 rebounds, 2 assists and a steal. The forward position has a lot of question marks, and tonight very few were answered.
This game wasn’t pretty. It wasn’t a convincing win, despite the thirteen point margin to finish. The Rockets looked shaky and sloppy to start and they lost a key player in Patrick Beverley. But they played more defense than last year, even noted matador James Harden. They improved over the course of the game, giving hope that they might improve over the course of the season. Most importantly? Dwight Howard showed up. The real Dwight Howard.