Too many games, the Houston Rockets' starters, featuring two of the 10 best players in NBA, have come out flat and fallen behind. Last night, with the Rockets desperate for a win and some stability, James Harden and Dwight Howard stepped up.
Dwight Howard was dominant against the Miami Heat's underwhelming front line, finishing with 23 points and 13 rebounds. James Harden scored 28 points on 19 shots. The Rockets shot 43.3 percent from deep on 30 attempts. When all those things come together, it means a big Rockets win. Against a poor team (the Heat are now 14-20), it means a 115-79 victory.
Josh Smith started the game on the bench and Donatas Motiejunas was in the starting lineup, and all was right with the world. Donuts torched any mismatch and played terrific defense (he had 12 points on 5-10 shooting). Smith, playing with what should be the Rockets' new rotation, looked comfortable and energetic. He had 12 points, 6 rebounds, two great assists and a block.
Most encouraging from last night's game was this number: 23. That's how many minutes Kostas Papnikolaou played. He was a +22 and, as always, brought creativity, energy and solid two-way play. It's worth more research (which could be coming this week), but I'd imagine lineups with him in it do very well, especially compared with the games where he hasn't seen the floor.
The small forward rotation is monstrous defensively. Trevor Ariza is still ice cold shooting (1-5, 0-3 from deep), but his defense, rebounding and solid basketball IQ keeps him on the floor. He had a career-high 6 steals last night and added 4 assists. Corey Brewer continues to shoot better than expected (3-7 from deep) and holy crap does the game change when he enters it.
Brewer is basically energy incarnate. Maybe it's crazy eyes, maybe it's fact that few, if any, play harder than he does. Either way, he's going be a huge part of any Rockets playoff success. Someone who can be a one-man momentum shift is crazy valuable, and that's exactly what he is. He had 11 points, 4 rebounds, 3 assists and 2 steals.
What made this all even more impressive is, again, it was on the second night of a back-to-back. The Rockets got blown out in New Orleans the night before, and came back to do the same against the Heat. That shows mental toughness, something the Rockets simply lacked last year.
The Rockets get Sunday off before traveling to Chicago to take on a red-hot Bulls team. Donuts should be starting yet again, and the matchup of Dwight-Donuts-J-Smoove against Joakim Noah-Pau Gasol-Taj Gibson will be fascinating.