James Harden, Dwight Howard

The Houston Rockets aren’t a team just happy with making the playoffs. They have a potential MVP in James Harden and now that Dwight Howard has returned, it’s safe to speak about winning the NBA championship once again.

The return of Howard led to a 95-93 win over the New Orleans Pelicans including a comeback from 17-points down for the Rockets, moving a bit closer to securing the third spot in the West and maybe putting some pressure on the Grizzlies (2nd, 1.5 games ahead), while also helping out the Oklahoma City Thunder, keeping the Pelicans 3.5 games behind them.

Howard didn’t excel on offense, scoring 4 points in 16 minutes. He also grabbed 7 rebounds, had 2 assists and also one big block on Anthony Davis. Davis combined to score 52 points with Tyreke Evans but it was once again another inconsistent performance from a team that’s drifting further and further away from making the NBA playoffs yet again.

But Howard’s presence, as short as it was, obviously helped. The Rockets are outscoring opponents by almost 7 points per 100 possessions during Howard’s minutes compared to 1.9 points when he’s not playing. Houston is allowing only 97.4 points per 100 possession when Howard is on the floor and surprising as it might sound, there’s quite a lot of leadership that’s involved in his contribution.

We came back from a big deficit and the one thing I kept telling the fellas was, we’ve got to stop playing around with the game. We’re on a big mission to win a championship, and we’ve got to wake up and play. I’m just happy to be back out there playing. The main thing for me is just really helping the team on the defensive end. The other stuff will come.

Howard didn’t get to the free throw line, but free throws made a huge difference in the game. James Harden was only 6-of-9 (86.6% this season), and a miss from him allowed the Pelicans 3.3 seconds to try and tie the game with a 3-pointer. Corey Brewer made the smart play and fouled Eric Gordon, sending him to the line for two shots. Gordon made the first and intentionally missed the second, but the Pelicans didn’t get a chance to tie or win the game in the remaining ticks.

Davis, no longer mentioned as an MVP candidate because his team is slipping out of the playoff race, missed eight shots from the line, crucial in the big picture when it comes down to such a close game. Davis is shooting 81.4% from the line this season, which makes these misses so uncharacteristic.

I don’t feel comfortable missing eight free throws, especially when we lost by two. I don’t like missing free throws, especially like that. Especially throughout the game, when we needed them, and I missed them. So I wanted to go out there and try to figure it out.

Davis will have his chance to repent, but maybe only next season, hoping that he finally gets to lead a team good enough to make the playoffs. The Rockets have been there and done that. They’re on a different path and course, with very different intentions. Harden got help from Ariza (22 points) and Motiejunas (21 points), feeling he might finally have what it takes to take the Rockets past a team in the NBA playoffs and a lot more than that.

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