TEMPE, Ariz. -- Dwight Howard's demeanor on Thursday told the story of a man who is tired of answering questions about his future.
The usually smiling and carefree Howard wasn't evident after the Houston Rockets didn't trade him by the deadline. No smiling -- Howard gave short and direct answers with no time for small talk following practice.
"Like I said, I wasn't thinking about it," he said. "I never asked for a trade. I just came out here to Phoenix and get ready for the second half of the season."
So now that he's not going anywhere, the Rockets need Howard to live up to his nickname: Superman.
The team has to get him the ball; he can't finish this season with fewer than 10 shot attempts per game. On the season, Howard is attempting just 8.8 shots per game, the lowest average since his rookie year of 2004-05, when he averaged 8.3.
When Howard gets the ball, he's pretty good, based on his .612 shooting percentage, and while his post touches are slightly down (8.7 this year compared to a league-leading 8.9 last season), his paint touches are ahead of last year's pace. He's averaging 6.9 paint touches this season -- third in the NBA -- compared to the 5.8 he had last year.
The Rockets are going to need Howard if they want to be a playoff team.
The trade talk over the past month should help to motivate Howard. The Rockets' inability to close on a deal after shopping him to several teams should be an eye-opening experience for the center.
"I think he's more determined than ever, and I don't think how much has to do with trade talk or rumors or what have you," interim coach J.B. Bickerstaff said. "To me, it's the vibe that he's had since he's been back from the All-Star break has been one of determination, wanting to help this team reach its potential. He's proven in the past and he's got the resume of a guy who can single-handedly impact change. If he plays at the level that he's capable of playing at, big things happen for everybody in this organization."
Howard becomes a free agent this summer if he doesn't elect to pick up his player option of $23.2 million. How he finishes these final 27 games will affect how many teams come after him in free agency.
"The only thing is to concentrate on tomorrow night, getting a win," Howard said.
The Rockets take on the Phoenix Suns on Friday to begin the second half of the season. It's time for the chemistry problems to dissolve, and it all starts with this two-man game between James Harden and Howard.
At times, Howard has deferred to Harden, and rightfully so, given the shooting guard's elite status. However, when Harden becomes the playmaker, Howard has to deliver. Howard must position himself more often in the paint and, on pick-and-rolls, he needs to charge harder to the basket to become a recipient. Defenses will clog the paint, preventing Howard from going to the basket, and some play calls have him setting picks to free up a jump shooter.
When Josh Smith played with the Rockets last season, he developed a strong chemistry with Howard on lob passes toward the rim. Smith, healthier now after battling some hip issues, should try to find that rapport again. Point guard Patrick Beverley and Harden should also get in the act with Howard to make sure he touches the ball.
For the next 27 games, the Rockets not only need Harden, but Howard too.
"I think everybody is determined," Beverley said. "Collectively, we're in a position right now. Our backs are against the wall right now, and the only people we can lean on and count on is each other. We understand nobody is going anywhere. This is our team. So we have to do what it takes to be successful in these last 27 games."
This whole free agency/trade talk seemed to wear on Howard. People in the media and fans have their personal opinions on how Howard should act.
"Doesn't matter," he said. "I know who I am and what I've done in my career, so there's no need to focus on anything negative. I have a great life and I'm blessed beyond measure. It doesn't matter. People can talk as much as they want, but I know how hard I've worked to get to where I am today. So I'm very thankful about that."