The Houston Rockets completed their gentlemen's sweep of the Dallas Mavericks last night with a 103-94 victory, and in the process proved -- finally -- why they are paying Dwight Howard and James Harden like the superstars they are.
Howard finished with 18 points, 19 rebounds, 4 blocks and 4 steals. Harden finished with 28 points, 8 assists and was a game-high +16. More importantly, when Harden was in foul trouble in the second half, Howard played all but one minute. He finished with 39 minutes, the most he's played in any game all year, and the Rockets needed every one of them.
Harden re-entered the game with six minutes remaining. After a missed shot and a turnover, he closed the Mavericks out in true MVP fashion. He step-backed Al-Farouq Aminu for a three-pointer, then got a huge steal, led a break and delivered an on-time, on-target pass for the final dagger in the Dirk Nowitzki-era Mavericks.
Combined, these two fill every possible skill for the Rockets. Harden creates off the dribble for both himself and teammates. On defense, he can play the passing lanes, and is a versatile defender who can chase wings around the perimeter and hold his own guarding power forwards inside.
Dwight Howard is a monster rebounder and rim protector on defense, the key to the Rockets being able to to outscore one of the most potent offenses in the league in four of five games. On offense, he's a destructive finisher in the pick and roll and a devastating offense rebounder.
Combined, in the first round, these two averaged 45 points, 17.6 rebounds, 9 assists, 2.8 steals and 3.2 blocks. We will write more about Josh Smith's stunningly good series (although far from perfect) and the adjustments Kevin McHale made that show how much he's improved in a year's time.
But tonight, the Rockets rode their two stallions to victory. Were they both perfect? No. Harden had 6 turnovers and Dwight went 4-10 from the line. But the good far outweighed the bad, and the Rockets were up enough that both of their max contract players got to hear the final buzzer from the bench.
Questions remain about the Rockets as a team. They beat the Mavericks in five games, yes, but the Mavs didn't have Chandler Parsons and the likes of JJ Barea and Al-Farouq Aminu gave them fits.
Aminu in particular was a problem of both ends, getting easy buckets and hounding Harden with his long arms and impressive quickness. He was Kawhi Leonard Light, which doesn't bode well for a potential semifinals matchup against the real thing.
Carlisle intentionally fouled Howard, Smith and Clint Capela at different points in the series, to different effect. Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich uses this strategy far more frequently, and that's a huge concern if they get by the Clippers.
But, here's the secret about the Rockets: they now have two, full-fledged, fully healthy superstars. This was not The James Harden Show that dispatched the Mavericks. These were the H and H boys, taking turns dominating the game in their own way. When the Beard ran a pick and roll with Smoove and Dwight lurked along the baseline, this was an unstoppable offense.
With two Top 10 NBA players playing 35 minutes per game in the NBA playoffs, the Rockets have something very, very few other teams have. A case could be made for LeBron James and Kyrie Irving, but the Rockets supporting cast is better. Chris Paul and Blake Griffin might have the best argument.
But, after watching Harden and Howard beat the Mavericks so soundly -- and that's what this five-game series with three victories of 9 or more points is -- with this year's MVP candidate not playing his best, it seems clear that this is the best 1-2 punch left in the playoffs.
And that, above all else, is Daryl Morey's master stroke. Injuries, poor timing and lackluster coaching have prevented the Rockets from seeing this incarnation of Morey's creation. But Harden and Howard are both fully healthy, and they are hitting a gear together Houston has not seen in two decades.
We don't know what the next series will hold at all, and the Rockets likely not be considered favorites no matter who wins the Spurs-Clippers series. But with these two leading the charge for the Rockets, anything can happen.