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Howard returns, Rockets squeak past Pelicans

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James Harden yet again takes control.

Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Dwight Howard returned to action tonight against the New Orleans Pelicans, his first game since January 23rd.

It seems like it was much longer.

But it didn't look that way.

In only 16 minutes of play, Howard shot two-for-three from the field and grabbed seven rebounds and two assists. He was certainly active in his short time on the court, which is always a good sign from a player returning from injury, though he did rack up four fouls pretty damn fast.

We should see him work back into a rhythm over this last stretch of games.

But don't expect him to take the spotlight away from MVP-candidate James Harden.

Yesterday, Harden explained to Sam Amick of USA TODAY Sports that Howard has given him the green light to keep on truckin'.

From USA TODAY:

"[Howard] said, 'I'll be returning soon, but I don't want you to change your game," Harden told USA TODAY Sports on Tuesday. "He said, 'I don't want you to do anything different. Just go out there and do what you do, and do it at a high level every single night.' He said, 'I'll adjust to you,' and that right there gave me confidence to just play, and play my game and not worry about anything else. Once you hear that from your other leader, then you know you can just go out there and play the way that I've been playing.

"I definitely needed to hear that, and he told it to me. So right there that gave me all the confidence in the world, not to try to force it to get him into a rhythm or try to do anything forceful. I can just play my game. Him telling me that just gave me the green light to just go out there and just be the James Harden that I've been being all season."

"I knew he was going to come back soon, so we had to have a meeting about what was going on — what he needed from me, what I needed from him," Harden continued. "JET (Terry) is one of the leaders also. He has won championships (2011 with the Dallas Mavericks). He has that experience. I always listen to him, and get feedback from him. That was probably one of the best meetings that I've had, just knowing that my big guy has confidence in me. We'll go out there and try to compete as a team together."

Harden, per usual, took control of Houston's offense tonight. He poured in 25 points on 9-of-20 shooting from the field and a surprising one-for-four from three-point range. Not only was The Beard tonight's leading scorer for the Rockets, but he also recorded a game-high 10 assists.

Harden was finding his teammates with relative ease and found a way to pick apart the New Orleans defense after the team committed way too many turnovers in the first quarter. Even with the win, the Rockets still garnered five more turnovers than the Pelicans.

Harden was finding the hot hand, wether it was Trevor Ariza, Donatas Motiejunas or Josh Smith, who each scored 22, 21 and 9 points respectively. Ariza shot three-of-four from deep while D-Mo put on a show in the low post.

The Pelicans managed to rally a comeback towards the end of regulation, and The Beard missed a crucial free throw with less than five seconds left that could have put the game in the bag.

Houston then smartly fouled NOLA when they were up by three points to avoid a three-point attempt.

And it worked.

95-93 Rockets

We have just 10 games left before the playoffs finally begin—only three are against teams not in the playoff race.