Dwight Howard returns tonight in New Orleans for the Rockets after a 26-game injury layoff, which is welcome news for a team that somehow stayed among the top-4 in the West without him. Credit their defense, the addition of Josh Smith and of course, those MVP fumes James Harden is inhaling.
“I wish we had more time for him to practice,” said Rockets coach Kevin McHale. “You need practice and rhythm. He’s going to have to do that during the game.”
Howard will help with rebounding and badly-needed interior offense but he can’t play point guard, too, which is a bit troublesome for the Rockets, since they could be without Patrick Beverley until … when, exactly?
Houston won’t know the extent of Beverley’s left wrist injury for another week. Initially diagnosed a sprain, it’ll be up to a specialist to get a more accurate reading on his time off and required treatment. Yahoo reported he could miss the rest of the season although the Rockets weren’t saying Wednesday, saying they needed additional information.
Beverley was the Rockets’ starting point guard although, in a sense, that’s a bit misleading. The ball mainly belongs to Harden in the Rockets’ offense and he dictates what happens next. Still, Beverley’s toughness on defense will be missed and the Rockets must now turn to a committee of replacements to do the job.
But Howard’s return is paramount. His swollen knee is no longer an issue and suddenly, the Rockets have size and a presence near the rim. The Rockets were out rebounded in 16 of those 26 games he missed. Depending on how well Howard adjusts — and he’ll be on a minutes ration initially — he could be the difference-maker for Houston in the playoffs. Especially against the Warriors, who don’t offer much inside.
Remember, in the playoffs last year, Howard was the best player on the floor for Houston. And yes, Harden played that first-round series against the Blazers, which the Rockets lost in heartbreaking fashion when Damian Lillard dropped a buzzer-beating catch-and-shoot 3-point dagger that remains an all-time playoff highlight. Howard averaged 26 points, 13.7 rebounds and almost three blocked shots in those six games.
“I’m just ready to play,” he said. “I haven’t played for a while … anytime you miss a lot of games, you’re anxious to get back on the floor.”
Houston is No. 3 in the West, just ahead of the Blazers, and went 17-9 without Howard. That’s likely where they’ll stay; they’re only 2 1/2 games behind the Grizzlies but there’s just 12 games left. They could be staring at an all-Texas first-round matchup, either against the Mavericks or Spurs.