Twenty years ago the Houston Rockets sewed up their second straight NBA title, rising from the No. 6 seed in the Western Conference to sweep the Orlando Magic in the 1995 NBA Finals. But since that storied run, the Rockets have reached the conference finals once, and have won four total playoff series. Houston’s never endured a playoff drought longer than four seasons over the past two decades, but almost every season would flame out midway through the first round.
This year could be different. Very different.
Capped by center Dwight Howard’s 28 points and 12 rebounds, the Rockets dropped the Dallas Mavericks 111-99 Tuesday night to take a 2-0 lead in their best-of-seven first-round series. The victory not only put Houston in position to reach the postseason’s second round for the first time in six years, it also put the rest of the NBA on notice that the Rockets are a team to be reckoned with this year.
Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler led a group of blue-collar players in the 90s, but this current roster is quite different.
This was the slick, hard-charging and unstoppable team general manager Daryl Morey envisioned would take hold when he acquired Howard two years ago. A breakneck pace capped with a dizzying array of powerful dunks coming from all angles, perimeter players creating their own shots, and athletic big men blocking and altering opponents’ shots at will.
But it took two convincing wins over a tested Mavs squad for Houston to build up their championship resume. The Rockets seemed to be slightly behind the pack entering the postseason, but their two playoff games may have quieted some detractors.
In the few days between the end of the regular season and the start of the playoffs, Houston’s chances of advancing to the second round were solid. The Rockets were 10/21 favorites to oust Dallas in the first round, but looking beyond that first obstacle Houston wasn’t viewed as a title contender alongside the Golden State Warriors or San Antonio Spurs.
Shooting guard James Harden provided an MVP-caliber season, and the Rockets had some talented swingmen in Josh Smith and Trevor Ariza, with Corey Brewer and Jason Terry coming off the bench. Terry and Harden could also spell the loss of starting point guard and top perimeter defender Patrick Beverley, at least through the first round.
That’s a formidable group capable of running any opponent out of the arena, but any legitimate championship talk rested solely on the health of Howard. The three-time Defensive Player of the Year missed half the season with a recurring knee injury, and worked his way back into the rotation in the final 12 games of the regular season. The 29-year-old flashed some semblance of his old dominating self with three-straight double-doubles against eventual playoff squads San Antonio and New Orleans, but the question was whether Howard could rediscover the form he used to carry Orlando to the Finals in 2009. In 23 games that year, Howard would average 20.3 points, 15.3 rebounds and 2.6 blocks per game with very little help on the inside.
Assuming Howard avoids another debilitating injury and can keep up the same production, he’ll create significant matchup problems for any potential team Houston faces in the second round or further. Should the Rockets advance, they’ll face either the Los Angeles Clippers or defending champion Spurs in the next round. Howard’s rebounding and shot blocking abilities would cancel out much of the production the Clippers receive from big man DeAndre Jordan, and he can make both forward Blake Griffin and Chris Paul reconsider attacking the basket.
The Spurs of course send out perennial All-Star and future Hall of Famer Tim Duncan, but the 38-year-old power forward no longer has the requisite athletic abilities to hang with Howard. San Antonio can throw center Tiago Splitter at Howard, but it wouldn’t do much good, and the same goes for Boris Diaw.
Howard would provide the same issues for a Golden State squad that relies on the inconsistent Andrew Bogut to hold down the middle, or even the Grizzlies' inside tandem of Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph.
The Rockets title hopes are further bolstered by Smith, who’s long been one of the most talented players in the league but never quite put everything together until now. Waived by Detroit in December and signed four days later by the Rockets, Smith totaled 15 points and nine assists against Dallas in Game Two, with most of the passes airmailed to a soaring Howard for an easy and pretty alley-oop.
"We have a few things where it all starts with Josh, and that's what we went with there," Rockets head coach Kevin McHale said to reporters after the win. "He was playing so well, it made sense."
The aerial display proved too much for the Mavs, who maybe didn't see it coming.
"Those are a problem," Dallas head coach Rick Carlisle said. "We've got to study that and do a better job. It was pretty obvious in the fourth quarter they jumped over us, on a lot of these plays. We're going to have to find a way to better combat that."
Smith’s emergence comes at the perfect time with Harden struggling in the first two games of the series. Though he’s scored 24 points in each game, Harden’s gone 9-for-28 from the field, which is well below his 44 percent rate during the regular season. Harden’s made up for the lack of scoring by finding his teammates for 17 total assists, but Smith gives Houston some breathing room while their leading scorer works out the early postseason kinks.
Terry, 37, has also acted as the type of veteran leader the Rockets have lacked recently. The second-oldest player on the team after Pablo Prigioni, Terry averaged only 7.0 points and 1.9 assists over 21.3 minutes in 77 games. But in the playoffs is where Terry really shines. In 95 career playoff games, Terry’s averaged 16.4 points per game, 1.6 more than his average during the regular season, and he connects on 40.3 percent of his three-point attempts.
The first-round is still far from over, with the series turning back to Dallas and the Mavs owning a solid 27-14 record at home, but the way Houston is playing right now a deep postseason run could be in the making.