Things often change quickly in the NBA.
It seems ages ago now that Dwight Howard's minutes and back-to-back restrictions were a major contributing factor to an ugly Rockets' start to the season that was notable for it's bad defense and lack of lineup continuity and chemistry.
Howard was cleared to return after the November 21st loss to the New York Knicks, and his full-time presence in the lineup has directly coincided with the Rockets' return to the playoff race. Houston has gone 17-11 since the back-to-back restrictions were lifted.
And Howard has lately been playing big minutes. Since Christmas, he's averaged 36 minutes per game. His busiest season ever was 38.3 per game in his final year with the Magic, so Dwight is currently playing almost as much as he ever has.
And it's getting results.
Howard notched his 9th straight double-double against the Lakers on Monday night when he went for 14 points and 15 rebounds, which is now his longest double-double streak since the 2010-2011 season (the cited article was written when Dwight was on 6. His 9th bumps it back even further).
And the recent stretch with the Rockets winning 6 of 7 games has Houston playing some of their best defense of the season (save the 1st quarter Monday night against the Lakers). They've given up just 95.3 points per game over that time frame, and Howard's play has been a big part of that.
With Donatas Motiejunas still without a timetable for his return to the court, Dwight figures to continue to get all the minutes he can handle. With a recent stretch of improved play by Terrence Jones (though bad T-Jones did pop out again last night), coach J.B. Bickerstaff has tightened his big man rotation down to mostly just three players- Howard, Jones, Clint Capela- and it sounds like, ideally, Bickerstaff would like to keep it that way, as he told ESPN:
"The talent is there with Terrence. We need to get to a point where it's there every night and we can depend on Terrence, because he's a big part of what we do. He's a big part of our big rotation up front. He, Clint, and Dwight right now get all the minutes at the big spots for us."
What that has meant, however, is there's been precious little court time for rookie big man Montrezl Harrell. Howard's workman performance and Jones' play has kept the 6'8" bundle of energy mostly glued to the bench.
But Harrell's stayed ready when called upon, as evidenced by his performance last week against Utah, when he was thrown into 27 minutes of action while Howard was forced to sit with back tightness (his only missed game since he was declared ready for back-to-back tilts way back in November).
Harrell's effort may not have shown up as a robust box line (5 points, 1 rebound, 1 assist, 1 steal, 1 block), but his hard-nosed play was every bit essential to the Houston victory.
Harrell also provided a spark in Monday's win over the Lakers, when he helped key a second-quarter team defensive turnaround after a lackadaisical start that ultimately flipped the game in the Rockets' favor. Harrell was rewarded with rare extended minutes and finished with 10 points and 8 rebounds to go alongside his usual spark.
That stay-ready professionalism is fast becoming a calling card of this group. Coach Bickerstaff has been preaching it all year, and guys seem to have finally fully bought in, with veteran Jason Terry telling the Houston Chronicle:
"Even though (the rotation) changes here and there, guys obviously know when they're called upon what they bring to this team. It's on defense, everybody holding each other accountable, and on offense, we all know our role. Play within your limitations, do what you do, and do it well. I think J.B. has done an excellent job of explaining that to everyone."
With a healthy Superman leading the way, overall improved play in the front court has had a ripple effect through the entire squad. Beard is gonna Beard, and the Rockets are always bombs away from deep, but defense, rebounding and an interior scoring threat will ultimately tell the tale of how this season finishes up. When the Rockets do all three next to Harden, they usually win, and Howard is the grease for that engine, with The Beard telling ESPN:
"He's playing well on both ends of the floor. I think especially offensively, he's not trying to force it, and that's why he's scoring and able to get touches and easy dunks and things like that. Defensively, he's helping, he's contesting every shot at the rim, pick-and-roll coverage is up. He's doing the things we need him to do for us to win."
The Rockets may need to cut back on Dwight's minutes as the season progresses, or give him the occasional night off as they did when his back tightened up before the Utah game, but with their superstar big doing superstar things and the secondary front court players seemingly 100 percent bought in behind him, for perhaps the first time this season, there's a glimmer of optimism beginning to shine through in H-town.