Howard getting close at right time for Rockets

Dwight Howard says it doesn't matter how many minutes he's playing in the playoffs as long as he's "dominating." Glenn James/NBAE/Getty Images

HOUSTON -- If there was one thing that developed from the Houston Rockets' film session on Thursday afternoon, it's that center Dwight Howard is getting close to what he used to be.

And with Game 1 of their first-round playoff series coming Saturday against the Dallas Mavericks, that's a good thing for the Rockets.

"I see him physically, what he's done in the last week and a half [to] two weeks, he looks good, his legs are fresh and he's lively," guard Jason Terry said. "If you would have seen our shootaround before this last game you would have gone 'wow.' ... He's very important. All of our bigs are important in this series because we have to dominate the paint. They have Tyson [Chandler] and [Amar'e] Stoudemire and that's it. They play small ball from there. So we have to physically impose our will on that paint."

Howard missed 41 games this season dealing with an assortment of injuries but most recently was lost for 25 consecutive games with swelling in his right knee.

Howard was on a minutes restriction when he returned to the lineup, and he finished the regular season with an expectation of playing at least 30 minutes a game. In the last three games of the regular season, Howard averaged 15 points and 11 rebounds per game.

In the regular-season finale on Wednesday against the Utah Jazz, Howard scored 14 points snagged eight rebounds in 21 minutes. With the game a blowout -- the Rockets won 117-91 -- he didn't reach the 30-minute mark.

The goal of going beyond 30 minutes is here with the playoffs starting.

"I don't know," Howard said if he'll get more minutes. "Just when I'm out there I have to play hard, it doesn't matter how many minutes I play. Then when I do that it will be great. It doesn't matter if I play 25 minutes, 30 minutes whatever it may be, as long as I'm dominating the paint we have a chance to win."

In the postseason last year, Howard was a dominant figure in the first-round loss to the Portland Trail Blazers.

He shot 62.5 percent from the floor, averaged 26 points, 13.7 rebounds and 2.8 blocks per game. He was probably the best player on the floor.

James Harden has that role now with the playoffs approaching, yet, with an improving Howard, the Rockets are confident things will go well.

"He's a lot further along now than he was a month ago when he first came back," coach Kevin McHale said. "I think he's getting closer, I think it's hard to not be in the NBA grind for a month or two and kinda get your rhythm. I thought [Wednesday] he moved better, he had better quickness, he had better lateral movement. He seemed to have more explosiveness. I think he's getting closer every day. We're going to need him at a real high level."