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Josh Smith and Dwight Howard can be unstoppable together

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Once they got going, Game 2 ended pretty darn quickly.

Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports

After three quarters of Game 2 of their first round playoff series against the Mavericks, the Rockets were only leading 81-80 despite outplaying Dallas.  Their defense was good overall, but a couple of key lapses led to open threes, and James Harden was having an off shooting night -- for that matter, everyone was having an off shooting night.

The fourth quarter began with James Harden sitting on the bench. On the floor were Pablo Prigioni, Corey Brewer, Trevor Ariza, Josh Smith and Dwight Howard. All of a sudden, something clicked between Smith and Howard, and all hell broke loose.

After Game 1, we realized that Dwight Howard might actually be fully healthy and ready to be the second star the Rockets would need to make it through the crowded Western Conference. Game 2 provided us with a second, perhaps even bigger realzation: a lineup that the Rockets can beat opponents with that does not involve James Harden.

When Harden sits, Josh Smith becomes the primary ballhandler for the Rockets, give or take a Pablo Prigioni possession. At its best (like the second half tonight), it's a lethally efficient offense, and here's how it has normally worked this season:

  • Smith grabs a rebound
  • Smith pushes the ball up the floor at speed, and does one of two things:
    • Passes it ahead to a runner like Corey Brewer or Trevor Ariza for fast-break points
    • Dumps the ball to a guard and slides into the offense

When Smoove and Howard share the floor, a new wrinkle is added: the 4/5 pick-and-roll. In the regular season, the two best friends only shared the floor for 281 total minutes -- a pittance. For perspective, Trevor Ariza and Tarik Black shared the floor for more minutes this year. But if there's one thing to take away from all the reminders about their AAU team or their wedding parties, it's that they have chemistry. Even in that small sample, there was evidence that the Smoove/Howard pick-and-roll could be a weapon:

The Mavericks are uniquely vulnerable to plays involving multiple bigs for Houston because of how shallow their frontcourt is defensively. Tyson Chandler is solid, yes, but if he and Dirk Nowitzki (who looked completely cooked in Game 2) have to handle that big man pick-and-roll, Chandler has an impossible choice.

If he stays home on Dwight Howard setting the pick, Josh Smith blows by Dirk and has a free run at the rim with nobody remotely tall enough to stop him. If Chandler switches, then Howard blows by Dirk and has a free run at the rim with nobody remotely tall enough to stop him -- and I think Josh Smith proved that he can make that lob pass with consistency.

The Mavericks have exactly one other big man in their rotation -- Amar'e Stoudemire, who gives Dirk a run for his money as a defensive liability. The Mavericks have scraped by this season by going small whenever they can, but the Smith/Howard front line is too big for that strategy to work, especially now that Chandler Parsons is hurt (he missed Game 2, and could miss the rest of the series).

Josh Smith nearly had a triple double, and his nine assists were split between lobs to Dwight Howard and kick-outs to Corey Brewer. He is the biggest matchup nightmare for the Dallas Mavericks this side of James Harden, and his ballhandling and passing is the reason why.

Josh Smith can also be effective as the screener, by the way. That's how you get a play like this:

If the Rockets stay on course, they will face a team much better equipped to handle the Smith/Howard pick-and-roll, whether it's the Clippers or Spurs. If Josh Smith completes six lobs to Dwight Howard in one half again in these playoffs, I'll eat my hat. But it's a real, honest-to-God offensive option for the Rockets that creates mismatches and easy looks all over the floor -- think those corner threes might be available once the defense collapses on the bigs? -- and can take some of the burden off of James Harden.

If Dwight Howard is back -- really, truly, 28-points-12-rebounds-and-2-blocks back -- and if the Rockets are becoming less one-dimensional on offense, then they have the potential to be a special team. Nothing is guaranteed in these playoffs, but the Rockets' concerns are melting away one by one.