Houston Rockets 130, Dallas Mavericks 128: You may or may not want to consider thinking about possibly pulling out your brooms

When the Daryl Morey brought Dwight Howard to Houston to join James Harden, even the most pessimistic Rockets fan surely had fantastic daydreams of nights just like last night.  The two best players at their positions, together on the same team, doing the things they do better than anyone, at the same time, on the same night.

And be sure, when Dwight plays the way he did last night, and all series really, he is still the most dominant big man around.

It may seem strange to anyone who watched last night that this article begins with Dwight Howard and not James Harden,
who scored 42 points on 15-24 shooting (5-7 from deep), dished 9 assists and grabbed 5 boards.  The Beard was wonderful, as always, but he has been doing that literally since the day he landed in Houston.

This new (old?) Dwight Howard, however, has been but a myth since the golden days of Orlando.  Not even Kobe got to play with the hover-near-the-rim-like-a-crouched-tiger Dwight, one with enough self-awareness to recognize that he was better suited for rim-protection and finishing than for posting and Dream Shake-ing.  Did all that time off, while the Rockets played their way to the 2-seed, finally open his eyes to this after three long years?

If anything did in fact open Dwight’s eyes to that reality, it was almost certainly sitting and watching James Harden do work.  As he showed all season, Harden only needs minimal help to pile up W’s.  And last night Dwight’s monstrous effort (13 pts, 26!!! reb, 3 ast, 2 stl & 2 blk) was the perfect compliment to Harden’s playoff masterpiece, as the Rockets took Dallas’ best shot and still came out on top.

When Harden hit his first two shots, both three’s from the right wing, you knew he was in for a big night.  The Beard went 2-9 from deep in the first two games of the series, and shot poorly in general (31% FG).  Last night he hit shots from all over the court, but was especially active from midrange.  This is normally such a faux pas for the Rockets, but with Tyson Chandler frantically trying to figure out how to protect the paint while also keeping Howard from tearing the rim down like he did in Game 2, it left quite a vacuum in the middle.  Chandler hung back by the rim more, rather than coming out to no man’s land to challenge Harden, and the Beard simply pulled up a few feet shorter than he normally would and knocked down several 15-footers.  He was surgical all night.

The rest of the Rockets weren’t exactly sitting back and watching either.  Josh Smith (18 pts, 3 reb and 4 ast), Corey Brewer (15), Trevor Ariza (13) and Terrence Jones (12) all scored in double figures as well.  The offense did stagnate at times, with too much standing around and too many pull-up jumpers, but overall the Rockets scored at will.

On the other end, the Mavericks may have just killed whatever free agent value Rajon Rondo had left.  After leading the league in offensive efficiency for most of the season, then falling to the middle of the pack after the Rondo trade, that the Mavericks just scored 128 points against a top defensive team in their first game without the mercurial point guard is not a good look for Rondo.

Monta Ellis and Dirk Nowitzki led the way for Dallas, both scoring 34 points.  Ellis handled the ball more without the aforementioned Rondo, and attacked (15-25 FG) as ferociously as he has all season.  Dirk somehow managed 10-19 shooting despite moving around like a mummy, and hit a big three late in the fourth to keep Dallas in the game.

Al-Farouq Aminu (15 pts, 5 reb, 2 stl & 2 blk) continued his season-long personal vendetta against the Rockets.  With the way he’s played in a couple of games against Houston this season, I was shocked to learn he only averages 6 points on 41% shooting and 5 boards.  JJ Barea (11 pts, 6 reb, 9 ast & 1 stl) reminded us once again that he’s the guy who stared down Lebron James and outplayed him for an entire Finals just 4 years ago.  Despite Ellis’ and Nowitzki’s scoring, it was really Barea who caused the Rockets the most trouble.  In just 25 minutes of action Barea managed a +22 plus/minus; the next highest Mav player was Amar’e Stoudemire’s +6.   He started breaks, broke down the defense and attacked the rim like he was the best player on the court, but disappeared late.

And it was late, with the Rockets up one, that Harden iced the game.  Ellis added a beautiful lay-in off the glass over Howard, and then Brewer went 1-2 on his free throws for the final points.  Ellis had an 18-footer at the buzzer to tie, but was fading to the left, shooting right and missed badly.

So now the Rockets are one win away from the sweep and some sweet, sweet rest while the Spurs and Clippers battle on in what is definitely the best series of the first round.  The Mavs showed that they’re not going to take anything laying down, but if the Rockets can tighten up their defense and put the clamps back on Lurch Dirk, this series is over.

And when the Spurs and Clippers are done pounding on each other, the Rockets will be waiting.  And it won’t be just James Harden and his band of misfits.  They’ll be joined, not by Dwight Howard, center for the Houston Rockets, but by DWIGHT FREAKING HOWARD, Hall of Fame-r.

Maybe it won’t last, maybe it’s just an aberration and Dwight’s health will waver again and his newfound effectiveness will fade back to mere solid production.  But for now?  Bring on one-legged Tim Duncan and Aaron “Dunk-Bait” Baynes.  Bring on Wishes-he-was-Dwight DeAndre Jordan.  It won’t matter.  The only thing keeping this team with those two players from the Finals is Him.

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