In a perfect world, good NBA teams would like to be able to manage the regular season the way that the San Antonio Spurs do every year. Play your superstars around 70 games, know exactly which games to rest them (and maybe even win a few of those, like the Spurs did against Golden State this past Thursday night), win your 55-60 games and head into the playoffs fresh.
If you happen to forfeit home court advantage in a playoff round, so be it. You're the San Antonio Spurs.
This season, in a crowded Western Conference, made all the more cramped by playoff positioning party crashers Portland and (for now) Phoenix, and with a team that is still in the laboratory every night trying to figure out this chemistry thing, the Rockets are afforded no such luxury.
The basketball gods seemingly will not allow it.
And that's why Dwight Howard's performance against the Detroit Pistons on Saturday night was easily the most important individual performance of the season thus far for the Houston Rockets.
The Rockets' season thus far has been more of a feeling out and survival process than an emphatic announcement that there's a new sheriff in town. At 18-10 and fifth overall in the Western Conference, if the season ended today, the Rockets would begin the postseason on the road. Not exactly how it's been drawn up on the chalkboard long-term in general manager Daryl Morey's office, not when around $150 million of Les Alexander's money is going to two superstar players these next four years or so.
If there's been a signature, though, of this season early on for the Rockets, it's been their depth and the basketball gods' putting said depth to the test. Yes, Morey managed to lure Dwight Howard to Houston, but he also prudently shopped in the bargain bin of veteran free agents in bringing back Aaron Brooks and Francisco Garcia, and also bringing in Omri Casspi, all with ridiculously team friendly deals.
With Jeremy Lin in street clothes and hipster glasses on a regular basis, Chandler Parsons' nursing back spasms on and off, James Harden's nursing nagging aches and pains, and Omer Asik's bruised ego manifesting itself as a bruised thigh, the depth of this team has been put to the test. Already, the Rockets have had more games missed due to injury this season than all of last season. Before Christmas. Ironically, the one guy whose health was a concern coming into the season, mainly because he was still a year removed from back surgery recovery, was Howard's.
So when the Rockets knocked off the Detroit Pistons on Saturday night 114-97, in a game with Lin, Harden, and Asik joined on the bench (for the next four to six weeks, it would appear) by Patrick Beverley due to a fractured right hand, it was only fitting that Howard chose this night for his true coming out party as a Houston Rocket.
Sure, there have been a couple of 30 point/double digit rebound games so far this season, but given the train wreck the night before in Indianapolis (a 114-81 loss to the Pacers) and the M*A*S*H unit that the roster had turned into, this needed to be a night where Howard said "I got this:"
"I just told my teammates to trust me and understand we play inside-out. I try to make the best plays I can for this team and I just want to win. The most important part about winning is getting everyone involved and we did an excellent job tonight."
Indeed, they did. Howard especially.
The All-Star center left all of his offensive inconsistencies and struggles at the door, channeling the repertoire he'd worked on so diligently this offseason with Hakeem Olajuwon into an array of dunks and low post moves that left Pistons' big man Andre Drummond searching for an Advil after the game.
35 points, 19 rebounds, 5 assists, 3 blocks in a 40 minute statement that was, yes, about winning a game on Saturday, but just as much about reminding the league who "the man" still is at the center position, putting forth further evidence that the debacle of a lost season in Los Angeles was not him, it was them.
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Now, with a week's worth of winnable home games (Dallas, Memphis, New Orleans, Sacramento) interspersed with road games in San Antonio and Oklahoma City, Spurs-style managing of the schedule and parsing of minutes remains a luxury not afforded head coach Kevin McHale right now. The Rockets are closer to ninth place than first place in the Western Conference. They need to win games.
And ironically, as we head around the turn into the second third of the regular season, the one thing Kevin McHale may be able to count on is the one guy doubters forewarned him about. The naysayers said Dwight Howard's ego would tear the team down.
On Saturday, it was Dwight Howard's dominance that held the team together.
Starting January 3, 2014, listen to Sean Pendergast on SportsRadio 610 from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. weekdays. Also, follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SeanCablinasian.