HOUSTON — Dwight Howard cleared the rebound off the defensive board, turned quickly and fired a perfect pass to a streaking James Harden that produced a layup that was prettier for its simplicity than any picture hanging in a museum.
This is how it starts.
Never mind that it took until the middle of the fourth quarter in a less-than-stellar team effort against the overmatched Bobcats.
All that mattered was that Howard was finally playing a game for the Rockets that counted in the standings, and for the first time after two tumultuous and dissatisfying seasons, things were different.
This was the way that Daryl Morey always hoped and wished it would be over all those months and years when he was trading players and draft picks and office furniture in an attempt to get the kind of super-nova stars in his lineup that would make the Rockets relevant again.
“I was nervous,” admitted the general manager.
It’s one thing to lie awake at night staring at a ceiling filled with fast-breaking fantasies and quite another to roll reality out onto the floor and expect it to work.
It did, if only in fits and start, and based on the overwhelming raw numbers of Howard’s work on the glass and around the basket.
He made eight of 14 shots from the field, blocked two shots and gobbled up 26 hungry rebounds, which equaled his career high.
“I really was trying to get 30,” Howard said. “I wanted to get 30 rebounds. I was upset that I didn’t do it, but I’ll try next time.”
More than numerical goals, it’s the fact that he can try without worrying about the effects of a surgically repaired back or a bad shoulder that make all the things he might do the next time and next time and next time a possibility again.
While he was often maligned a year ago in Los Angeles for an attitude that was less than healthy, beneath it all what was really ailing was Howard’s body. There were times last season with the Lakers when he would see the basketball bounce off the rim and be helpless to go and get it.
“Oh yeah, my mind was at the ball, but my body was still on the other side,” Howard said. “I couldn’t do it. I’m a lot healthier than I was last season and that comes from all the work I put in this summer to get my body back right. My teammates need me to rebound and be a dominant force on both ends. I’m healthier and I’m able and willing to do it.”
When asked to rate his health on a scale of 1-10, he called this an 8.
Maybe it would never have worked on the Lakers with Howard and Kobe Bryant constantly clashing their styles and their egos. But the fact that a quick, explosive, 6-foot-11 jumping jack was never fully fit to play certainly played into the disappointment.
“He’s the elite basket protector in the league when he’s healthy,” said Bobcats coach Steve Clifford, who was an assistant on the staff when Howard was in Orlando and was Mike D’Antoni’s No. 1 aide last year in L.A. “I’ve gone through stretches of two-three weeks when we were in Orlando where he just dominated the game.
“Watching him on film and talking to him, I just think he feels a lot healthier. He’s moving a lot better and he’s playing with great energy. He’s such a physical force and he’s also a very smart player that when he’s right — and right now it looks like he is — he can impact every play at both ends of the floor.”
It certainly doesn’t hurt that in the Rockets’ twin towers lineup with rim protector and rebound collector Omer Asik at center Howard is free to be as relentless and aggressive as he would like. But mostly it doesn’t hurt that Howard just doesn’t hurt.
The legend of the summertime workouts with Houston legend and Hall of Famer Hakeem Olajuwon might grow into bigger difference-making myths than Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox if the Rockets become everything they hope to be by going deep into the playoffs, maybe even all the way to June.
“He never last year moved like he’s moving now,” Clifford said. “He’s looking like a different guy. With all the frustrations that everybody had to deal with there last year…he’s got pride and he had played at a level in Orlando that he could physically never get to last year (in L.A.). I think that’s where it all started.
“People can say whatever they want about our team last year, but those guys fought hard. (Howard) could have sat out. We went 28-12 the last 40 games with our backs to the wall, playing every night to get to the playoffs. Those guys did a great job and he was right in the middle of it. He didn’t give in. Again, until Kobe got hurt, I think we were the team people were saying, ‘Man, I’m not sure I want to match up with them’ when we were seventh or eighth. Because we were playing well at that point.”
But it ended with Bryant watching from the locker room, having earlier torn his Achilles’ tendon and with Howard getting tossed out of the final game of a desultory first-round playoff sweep by the Spurs. Then after the celebrated recruiting pitch by a handful of teams, it ended with Howard choosing this new beginning in Houston, where a fan base that had suffered through nearly two decades of mediocrity was waiting.
“I was ready to go,” Howard said. “That was it. But I didn’t have any butterflies. I’ve been in the league for a while now, so to me it’s just one of 82, but it’s very important that we get off to a good start.
“I didn’t try to think that way, because I didn’t want to put any extra pressure on myself. I just want to go out there and play, have fun and get back to being who I am as a player. I think when you focus too much on…what everybody else is saying, that’s when don’t play like you want to play. To me, I just want to be free to play, rebound, block shots, score in the post and make my teammates better. And have fun doing it. These guys, they look up to me, and me and James are going to lead this team in the right direction.”
This is how it starts.