My bodyguard: With Dwight Howard, teams won't bully Rockets anymore

AP Photo/David J. Phillip

After the Houston Rockets' stunning 105-85 loss to the Denver Nuggets on Wednesday night, just a few players remained scattered about in the Rockets' locker room.

Despite the relative emptiness, there was no denying that something was missing in the season opener.

In a stall near the shower area sat some black flip-flops nestled outside the locker, and six pairs of sneakers.

These were Dwight Howard's unused sneakers. His flip-flops -- dry as could be. He was serving a one-game suspension for his accumulation of flagrant fouls in the 2014-15 postseason. Without Howard on the court, his replacements failed to control the paint and prompted coach Kevin McHale to remark about a lack of edge and urgency for his team.

That should change Friday night when Howard returns for the Rockets against the Golden State Warriors.

"I just want to give my team confidence on the defensive end," Howard said. "Talking [and] making sure that I'm always early in the help position, just being the big presence."

Instant toughness

He is, as several Rockets testify, the "quarterback" of the defense. He will take pressure off second-year player Clint Capela, who replaced Howard at center on Wednesday. Howard also minimizes the pressure on rookie power forward Montrezl Harrell and relieve him from trying to learn so much so fast on defense.

To be fair, Terrence Jones and Capela didn't play badly, combining for 24 points, 13 rebounds and 4 blocks. When Jones sat with two fouls, Harrell came in and scored eight points, but grabbed just three rebounds, and like Capela, was late on some defensive coverages.

But Howard's return also gives the Rockets a needed boost on offense. Besides James Harden's typical production, guards Ty Lawson and Patrick Beverley are presences that facilitate Howard's contributions.

While Lawson is being asked to push the offensive pace during Rockets practices, it is Howard who's running down the floor getting into position for passes in the paint and in position to snag rebounds. McHale, who knows a thing or two about big men, said Howard has beaten up the other bigs because he looks so fresh and is using his 11 years of experience.

And with that experience, his teammates expect leadership Friday night.

"It's tremendous, he's our big guy in the middle, the most dominant force in basketball. It gives us depth in our frontcourt, something that we sorely needed . . . they beat us up time in and time out."

Indeed, Howard will yell out to guards when someone is trying to set a pick and move to the weak side when he sees a play coming that way, to more consistently challenge a shot at the rim.

"Our defensive coverages were loud because [Dwight] calls them out and he sees it happening," McHale said after Thursday's practice. "He's been around for a while and sometimes there's absolutely no substitute for experience."

The Warriors use plenty of pick-and-roll plays to free up their outside shooters. If those shooters miss, Howard is Houston's presence underneath to snag rebounds and send quick outlet passes to their speedy guards in order to push the pace.

When Howard is on the floor, things happen smoothly. Quicker. Faster.

"It's tremendous, he's our big guy in the middle, the most dominant force in basketball," veteran guard Jason Terry said. "It gives us depth in our frontcourt, something that we sorely needed . . . they beat us up time in and time out. It wasn't just the bigs, it was across the board."

Howard played in just one preseason game, then his lower back tightened up, so the Rockets took precautions and sat him. His last meaningful game? Six months ago in Game 5 of the Western Conference finals.

In those five games, Howard's block percentage increased from 2.9 in Game 1 to 7.3 in Game 5. In the decisive Game 5, won by the Warriors, Howard's defensive rating was 95. So certainly Howard's presence will be felt Friday night.

"It's been a while so I've been anxious to play," Howard said. "My goal is to progress each month, each game and continue to grow. Next month I want to be a lot better than I am this month and go forth from there."