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Previously dismissed, Dwight Howard and Rockets 'tuning up' for potential title run

Marc J. Spears
Yahoo Sports
NBA: Houston Rockets at Los Angeles Lakers
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Feb 19, 2014; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Houston Rockets center Dwight Howard celebrates on the bench in the fourth quarter against the Los Angeles Lakers at Staples Center. The Rockets defeated the Lakers 134-108. (Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports)

SACRAMENTO, Calif. – A dancing Dwight Howard loudly sang Beyoncé's hit, "Drunk In Love," after the Houston Rockets' 129-103 blowout win over the Sacramento Kings on Tuesday night. Shortly after, James Harden arrived to his locker coincidentally singing the same song.

On the court, Harden and newcomer Howard have been in tune for the Rockets, too, as they combined for 63 points on this night and have led the franchise to an 8-1 record in February and an NBA-best 18-5 record in 2014. And suddenly Howard's proclaimed title aspirations upon arrival don't sound like a song and dance with Houston anymore either.

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Dwight Howard shoots over Kings power forward Jason Thompson. (USA TODAY Sports)

"Myself and James have been to the [NBA] Finals," Howard said. "I've been in the league for a while and I understand the importance of winning. Not just regular-season winning, but winning when it counts which is in the playoffs. I just have total faith in this team.

"I told them it wouldn't be easy. But we got a shot. We can't say we want to wait a year to gel and be ready. We want to win right away."

While Rockets fans definitely listened, Howard's words proclaiming that he was joining a championship-caliber team primarily went on deaf ears when he bolted to Houston from the Los Angeles Lakers last offseason. Keep in mind that the Harden-led Rockets were 45-37 last season and lost in the first round of the playoffs to the Oklahoma City Thunder. Even with Howard, a title would be a major jump the next season in the tough and deep Western Conference.

Harden was for the most part scoring in volume per usual at season's start. But at times he deferred to Howard in hopes of getting him going. Howard appeared to have a Lakers hangover his first month with the Rockets averaging just 16.7 points in November. Houston opened with a 5-4 record before improving to a 13-5 mark by November's end.

"Sometimes you start off a season slow," said Howard, who is now averaging 18.9 points and 12.6 rebounds per game. "We did. We stayed patient. We lost some games we shouldn't have lost. But we stayed patient and stayed focused."

Said Rockets forward Chandler Parsons: "We knew when we got together it was going to be a process and it wasn't going to happen overnight and we would have to go through some battles together."

Howard's eventual comfort level didn't take long to arrive thanks to the help of Rockets past and present.

[Related: DeMarcus Cousins apologizes for actions during loss to Rockets]

Howard said ex-Rockets general manager Carroll Dawson aided him with the mental aspects of his post game. Howard worked on his post game in the gym on off nights. The Rockets worked hard on 2-on-2 offensive drills in practice that centered on guards throwing the ball into the post.

Howard appeared to reach "a level of trust" between himself and his teammates in December. He said he improved in the post by allowing the game to come to him from reading the defense. He also eventually grew comfortable implementing post moves taught by former Rockets great Hakeem Olajuwon and coach Kevin McHale. Howard had tips for his teammates, too.

"We talked about it. We watched film," Howard said. "I've been telling guys all season that instead of throwing bounce passes to me just throw it by the rim. It's an easy assist for those guys. Nine times out of 10 they are not going to foul me above the rim. They are getting a lot better at it."

The Rockets entered the All-Star break with a 36-17 record. But that brought little fanfare as the Miami Heat, Oklahoma City Thunder and Indiana Pacers stole the midseason headlines of success stories. Howard and Harden talked at length during the All-Star break in New Orleans about they both needed to step up their games as players and leaders the rest of the way. They also wanted to make sure their teammates followed suit with their play.

"We try to leave it all on the floor, play for each other and lead our team," Howard said. "At All-Star break we said let's just come back and lead this team."

That All-Star duo powwow in New Orleans paid immediate dividends.

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Francisco Garcia, left, Chandler Parsons, center and James Harden enjoy the closing moments of Tuesday's win.  …

Harden, who scored a season-high 43 points against the Kings on Tuesday, is averaging 29 points, 5.6 rebounds and 3.9 assists in February. Howard, shooting an improved 62.4 percent from the free throw line this month, is averaging 22.8 points, 13.1 rebounds and 2.7 blocks in February.

"I still don't think we are at a level we want to be at," Harden said. "But we've done a pretty good job as the season progressed trying to get a feel for where he likes to be and vice versa. He's a dominant big man. It's kind of easy to play with him. You have to determine when to attack it, lob or finish it myself."

The Rockets have won 10 of their past 11 games. The only loss came in a 102-99 overtime defeat to the Golden State Warriors on Feb. 20 in which Harden injured his elbow late. The last time the Rockets lost in regulation was a 99-81 defeat to the Memphis Grizzlies on Jan. 25.

Harden says he's not surprised.

"We are playing very good basketball right now," Harden said. "Since the beginning of the season we've had guys going in and out of the lineup injury-wise. We're just happy to have guys back and in their role we envisioned going into training camp."

The Rockets (39-18) are also now only 1½ games behind the San Antonio Spurs for second-place in the West. The first-place Oklahoma City Thunder is within reach with a four-game lead. The Rockets have a chance to make another statement on Wednesday as they finish their five-game road trip against the West's current fourth-seed Los Angeles Clippers.

"I don't look at the standings because I don't want myself and my teammates to get cocky," Howard said. "I want us to stay humble."

The only Houston team that got to 35 wins faster was the 1994 NBA champions. And if the Rockets continue to fly higher, it's possible that Howard and Harden could be singing, "We Are The Champions," by Queen together by season's end.

"We understand that nobody cares about the Rockets and nobody has talked about us all year," Howard said. "Our goal is to win a championship."

Said Harden: "We're happy to [be overlooked] and we're fine with it. We're focused on what we can control in this locker room."

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