NEW YORK -- His face creased in his usual smile, Dwight Howard applied lotion to his hands and detailed the numerous options he has to play video games on various big screens back in the new locker room in Houston. He was content and relaxed as he packed up, ready to head out of Madison Square Garden just before midnight on Thursday.
This was just a short time after he took only five shots in 34 minutes, was yanked from the game in the fourth quarter because of his foul-shooting liability and was outclassed several times over by the New York Knicks' oft-maligned big man, Andrea Bargnani.
"I'm happy here," Howard said. "These guys have been great to me."
That attitude after such a game also explains why the Rockets flatly denied center Omer Asik's latest trade request that was made this week. Asik wasn't so happy after the Rockets' 109-106 victory over the Knicks. In fact, he was the first player out of the locker room after he didn't play in a regular-season game for the first time in 239 games. It snapped what was the longest consecutive games-played streak in the league. Asik played just four minutes on the Rockets' two-game road trip after losing his starting job.
Houston is in no hurry to make a big decision with the unhappy Asik for the same reason Howard is in such a positive mood: The Rockets are still a bit of a mystery, even to themselves. They're working out issues nearly game by game, and it's turned their early season into a bit of a lab experiment.
For better or worse, they're in no rush.
Overall, it was such a reversal from the last time Howard was in this space, when he pouted about not getting touches and took thinly veiled shots at then-coach Mike D'Antoni's offense after a Los Angeles Lakers loss to the Knicks last season. And on that night, he got 11 shots.
Howard is more committed to this situation with the Rockets -- he chose it after all -- and it shows up everywhere. Instead of the high-pressure, short-term Lakers team, these Rockets have a different view of themselves and their place in the NBA than where Howard found himself a year ago.
That Lakers team started 1-4 and the coach, Mike Brown, got fired. The Rockets are 6-4 and they seem to be taking a long-term and realistic perspective about their bumpy ride thus far.
This 10-game segment hasn't exactly announced their presence as a contender, as their highly successful preseason hinted at. But if you were drafting a team to follow based on potential alone this season, the Rockets would figure on being one of the first few picks.
"You can practice a lot, but, in our business, games are the test," Rockets coach Kevin McHale said. "So we're going to keep plugging away."
The Rockets lost a game last week when the Lakers repeatedly fouled Howard intentionally to help them make a late-game comeback. Howard went 5-for-16 at the line that night, and being on the floor in crunch time hurt his team. So Thursday, when the Knicks starting doing it with four minutes to play, McHale pulled Howard off the floor after he missed two free throws and the Knicks cut the lead with a 3-pointer.
Twice this week, the Rockets have given up a 3-point lead late in a game in which they elected to play straight defense instead of fouling. The Toronto Raptors' Rudy Gay forced overtime with a 3-pointer Monday -- a game the Rockets ended up winning -- and the Philadelphia 76ers' James Anderson forced overtime with a 3-pointer on Wednesday, which resulted in a Rockets loss.
So, in the same spot Thursday, Houston fouled. Carmelo Anthony, who was sizzling with 45 points, fired in a shot that would've tied the game with five seconds left but he was grabbed by James Harden first. The Knicks protested the call, saying Anthony was fouled in the act of shooting, but the officials could not review it. As it was, the Rockets informed the referees they'd be fouling and the whistle did blow before Anthony jumped.
It made the Garden crowd and the Knicks furious, but, from the Rockets' standpoint, the move showed they're making progress. The Knicks, who have already lost four home games, are 3-5 and are looking for any help they can get. Despite Howard being held down, Harden went off for 36 points and Jeremy Lin came off the bench for what was surely a satisfying 21 points against former teammates as he continued a recent hot streak.
Lin, with his revamped jumper, is averaging 18.4 points and shooting 47 percent on 3-pointers in his new role as a bench player. Playing more without Harden, who is known to dominate the ball, seems to be a correction from his uneven play last season.
That's really where the Rockets are: making corrections.
"We're getting better, but it takes time," Howard said. "We didn't expect to all get together and be an amazing team. It takes time. We're going to go through adversity."
They have some more issues to deal with, namely their defense.
Despite having Howard -- and, in theory, another strong defender in Asik when he plays -- on the inside, the Rockets have gotten torched repeatedly this season. Even with all their offensive firepower -- Chandler Parsons, who had 22 points Thursday, included -- the Rockets have been hideous at times with their perimeter defense.
The Rockets have time to work on it, and if history is a guide, they'll probably end up giving Asik what he wants and make a trade that could potentially better balance their roster. But a move won't happen until the Rockets are good and ready, not until they make the necessary corrections to reach their potential.
"There's nothing for me to prove," Howard said. "I want to win a championship, and you don't do that now. You do that at the end of the season."