The Houston Rockets made it very clear that Dwight Howard's return to the court in Wednesday's visit to the New Orleans Pelicans would not find the eight-time All-Star pushing the limits of the sore right knee that had kept him out since January 23. Based on that expectation, Howard's first game back was a success, even if it provided few opportunities to judge his current level of play.
Howard started and played his as-expected 16 minutes in the Rockets' 95-93 victory over the Pelicans, logging four points (2-of-3 FG), seven rebounds (all defensive), two assists, a block, and four fouls in a clearly secondary role. The mere fact that he played in a real NBA game is good news for the Rockets as they jockey for seeding and prepare for the playoffs, but this game also served as a reminder that Howard is not at his typical star level and may not be at any point again this season.
That's not necessarily a bad thing, and it appears to be the plan moving forward. Howard has made it clear that he is fine with Harden continuing to be the alpha and omega of the Rockets offense as he retakes his spot in the lineup, and the Rockets certainly didn't appear to treat their very famous center any differently than the players who replaced him while he was out. MVP candidate Harden did everything (25 points on 9-of-20 FG, 6-of-9 FT) while Donatas Motiejunas (21 points on 10-of-16 FG) and Trevor Ariza (22 points on 9-of-13 FG, nine rebounds, five assists, three steals) excelled as extra scoring options. This is how the Rockets have been playing for months.
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As our Kelly Dwyer wrote earlier Wednesday, though, it figures that Houston will need more out of Howard with forward Terrence Jones (collapsed lung) and point guard Patrick Beverley (torn wrist ligament) potentially sidelined for the rest of the season. That impact does not necessarily have to come at the offensive end — in fact, it's probably easier for the Rockets to focus on what Howard can provide as a rim protector and defensive linchpin. That is particularly the case with Beverley out, because the team now lacks their usual defensive tenacity.
Wednesday's win remains a positive start to this process, but it also serves as a reminder that the Rockets' margin of error is now smaller. The Pelicans very well could have won this game if not for poor free throw shooting from Anthony Davis throughout the night (just 6-of-14 overall) and especially when he split a pair to make the score 94-92 with seconds remaining. Harden gave New Orleans life when he made just one of two at the other end to make it a three-point game, but it's possible that Houston would not have fouled Eric Gordon in the final seconds to force a missed free throw on the next possession. We won't know if the positives will outweigh the negatives for hte Rockets until we see if Howard can contribute more in upcoming games.
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