By: Forrest Walker
Dwight Howard is alive and well. He's dunking in traffic, finishing alley-oops, defending the paint and grabbing rebounds. He suited up after a two month absence, played 16 minutes, and did all the things Dwight Howard should be doing. The Rockets also won a critical game against a division rival, gained a game on the team ahead of them, and didn't lose anyone else to injury. To top it all off, Houston came back from a dismal first quarter to erase a 17-point deficit and in fact take a double digit lead for much of the second half. The Rockets got everything they wanted and more, and remain undefeated with Jason Terry as a starter.
James Harden, true to his promise, changed nothing with Howard back in a jersey. Harden attacked the basket, shoot his man, drew fouls, and started his evening out with a beautiful dish to a dunking Dwight. Without Patrick Beverley (torn wrist ligament) for the foreseeable future, Harden's handling and creation abilities are coming into full focus. He responded with 10 assists to go with his 25 points, and his effect was apparent whenever he left the floor.The Rockets struggled to find any offense without Harden, but steamrolled the Pelicans with his help. Harden remains the engine that drives the team, and Houston had better hope he can get some rest and avoid injury for the rest of the season.
If Harden is the engine, Ariza is the suspension, a vitally necessary but seldom highlighted element that the whole contraption rests on. Trevor Ariza took 13 shots and ended up with 22 points, 9 rebounds, 5 assists and 3 steals. He hit 3 of 4 attempts from deep and was instrumental in a huge comeback across the second and third quarters. He defended resident superhuman Anthony Davis for long stretches, and he was as up to the task as anyone's been all year. Ariza's second stint in Houston has been the opposite of his first go, in the best way possible. The fact that Houston has him for three more years after this one on a declining salary is turning out to be one of the steals of the off-season.
Another role player came up big, as he has before, and as he must again. Donatas Motiejunas has been a godsend for an offensively challenged Rockets team, and his post play has been a welcome pressure valve for a team that's missing its starting one guard. He's also more and more willing to let fly from downtown, and he's accurate enough that he can usually make teams think twice about leaving him alone. The competition between Motiejunas and Terrence Jones has been amazing to watch, as both players continue to outperform expectations and fill in the gaps of a roster that needs to shoring up. Motiejunas' 21 points and 8 boards are the latest entry in a competition that has no losers for Houston.
Joey Dorsey and Dwight Howard did a fine job in their role as Dwight Howard by committee, with Dorsey covering 11 minutes with 4-5 field goals and 3 rebounds, and Howard going 2-3 with 7 boards in his 11 minutes. 12 points, 8 field goals, 10 rebounds, 3 assists and a block is a fine line for 26 minutes of play, so if Dwight and his stunt double can keep this tag team going until Dwight's ready to be Dwight full time, Houston is well taken care of.
The headband crew didn't fare well. Josh Smith led the crew with 9 points on 4-10 shooting and 4 rebounds, though his one made three out of 4 tries was critical. Jason Terry and Corey Brewer were worse from the field, and Brewer only had a couple high-energy clutch plays, well below his standard. Jason Terry simply can't be trusted in general, and the sooner he gets sent back to the bench, the better for everyone. If Pablo Prigioni could get his shot back on line and his passes back on course, that would help Houston in this time of need. Hopefully he'll work out as point guard insurance while Beverley is gone, perhaps for the season.
On a night when the Rockets couldn't catch a break in their game, when Anthony Davis shot more free throws (14) than the Rockets did as a team (12), when they started 0-7 from three and the Pelicans shot 75% in the first quarter, Harden and Howard were there. The H&H Rockets are finally back, and now Houston is only one loss behind the 2nd seed Memphis Grizzlies. Despite injuries, despite poor shooting, despite everything, the Rockets are still around. And now that the other H is back, it's time to move forward.