The NBA Playoffs are the ultimate marathon, so when you have a journey to a title in sports spread out over two months, this is how it goes sometimes. The Houston Rockets spent the last three months of the 2014-15 season meticulously managing Dwight Howard's right knee. They allowed him to miss a few dozen games, continually checked the knee, and laid out a timeline that included a detailed ramping up of minutes over the last couple weeks of the season, all leading up to a full load of minutes each night in the postseason.
Indeed, the city of Houston's collective happiness seemed to be tied directly to the welfare of Dwight Howard's right knee. So naturally, after all that, less than a quarter into the Western Conference Finals, Josh Smith went careening into Howard's left knee after being sent to the floor on a wild, out of control running hook shot.
Howard left the game briefly, jogged along the sidelines, and eventually returned. However, he was limited to just 26 painful, mostly ineffective minutes, and the Rockets were forced to try to use a small ball lineup against a team whose small ball lineup is one of the most lethal in the league. In the end, the Rockets made it close, losing 110-106, but the bigger story was the health of Howard, who is maybe the biggest key to the Rockets pulling off the upset against the top seeded Warriors.
On Wednesday afternoon, after an MRI on the knee, we got the news — Howard's left knee is mildly sprained, and he is now listed as questionable for Game 2.
In the grand scheme of things, the news of a strain to the knee is probably good news, considering that nothing structural is wrong with the knee. It's not an injury that should force Howard to miss extended time, although based on Howard's categorization of the pain level at practice on Wednesday (a practice in which he did not participate), it would seem that his participation in Game 2 is in jeopardy. This is significant, given that teams who go up in a series 2-0 at home go on to win their series 94 percent of the time.
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If Howard can't go in Game 2 (or beyond) what do the Rockets do to fill his 33 minutes per night? The obvious answer is that they bump up the number of minutes for rookie big man Clint Capela, who gave them a very productive 13 minutes off the bench on Tuesday in Game 1 (9 points, 4 rebounds, a respectable -1 +/- rating). Going from 13 minutes to north of 30 minutes is a big jump psychologically, so it could be more of a partial split of Howard's minutes with Capela as part of a committee.
This is actually a series where Kevin McHale could safely insert Joey Dorsey (and his 20-something percent free throw percentage) in spurts and not have to worry about being a victim of the "Hack-a" strategy, since Steve Kerr generally likes to keep the pace quick, so Dorsey could be part of the solution. Beyond that, a Dwight-less Thursday probably means another round of small ball, which could put the Rockets on the fast track to vacation.
One thing is certain — with no Dwight Howard, the minimum for what they'll need from MVP runner up James Harden would be Tuesday night's near triple double. Harden news to be the best player on the floor tonight.
Listen to Sean Pendergast on SportsRadio 610 from 2 p.m. to 7 p.m. weekdays. Also, follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SeanTPendergast.