The Rockets used their improving chemistry to take care of the Toronto Raptors by a final score of 110-104 in double overtime Monday night. It was a messy win, but one that Houston desperately needed after dropping three of its past four contests.
Aesthetics aside, the victory had to look pretty good to Rockets fans who were watching D12 closely—and not just because the big man put up 18 points, 24 rebounds and five blocks in 45 minutes.
There's still a lot of work for both Howard and the Rockets to do, but it appears as though both parties are starting to figure out how to play with one another.
Justifiable Skepticism and Signs of Progress
From the moment Howard agreed to sign with the Rockets this past summer, questions about his fit on the roster cropped up. It probably didn't help that most of those doubting his ability to succeed in a fast-paced, highly unconventional offense were basing their opinions on how he slogged his way through a nightmare season in Los Angeles.
Now in much better physical condition and desperate to prove he can finally capitalize on a good situation, Howard is doing his best to integrate himself into the Rockets' mix.
After playing at the fastest pace in the league in 2012-13, Houston had been using offensive possessions at a much slower rate this year. Against the Raptors, D12 showed the ability to serve as a catalyst for the uptempo attack that made the Rockets so dangerous a year ago.
If Howard can continue to start the break by getting the ball up the floor in a hurry, it'll go a long way toward restoring one of the Rockets' best weapons: their speed.
Of course, D12 can't get his teammates out in transition without getting stops. That's been a surprisingly difficult task this year, largely because of the defensive ineptitude of Houston's perimeter players. James Harden has been the subject of particular criticism for his failure to put forth effort on D.
I guess there's some evidence in the case against the Beard's defense, huh?
Anyway, Howard has struggled at times this year in his efforts to make up for so many perimeter liabilities. But he did a better job of getting those precious defensive stops against the Raptors, and his work on defense led to even more of what the Rockets needed on a night when offense was tough to come by.
And in the half court, D12 showed signs of building the kind of chemistry the Rockets will need if they can't get out and run consistently.
Howard made it clear that he wasn't a big fan of pick-and-roll basketball when he was playing for Mike D'Antoni's Lakers, and there was real concern about his willingness to accept a heavy dose of that style in Houston's half-court sets.
It seems as though he's seen the light.
Howard is exceptionally effective when he rolls hard to the rim, and there aren't more than a handful of NBA guards as devastating as Harden in pick-and-roll situations. So it's yet another good sign of Howard's fit in Houston that he's been doing a solid job in one of his least favorite sets.
Not Everything's New
Howard has made some important strides, but he hasn't undergone a total basketball overhaul. Some of the holdovers from his past are helpful to Houston's cause, while others might present problems in the future.
One thing that certainly hasn't changed is Howard's ability to police the paint effectively. The big man turned away five shots against the Raptors, including one highlight swat on a dunk attempt by Rudy Gay in the third quarter.
In addition to handling the interior on defense, Howard has also been running the floor effectively, using his athleticism to tire out opposing bigs. It's great for the Rockets that D12 has been featuring some of the positive attributes that made him so dangerous in years past.
But may of the same negatives that have plagued him throughout his career have made their way to Houston, too.
The free-throw woes are still there, as are the perplexing offensive disappearances. Howard made just 4-of-12 foul shots and scored one point after halftime.
Plus, Howard still has the occasional, inexplicable lapse on defense. Perhaps he has decided to pick his spots as he's aged.
The game against Toronto was an ugly one, rife with turnovers and clunky offensive possessions on both sides. It was the type of contest that Houston might not have been able to win without Howard holding down the middle and owning the boards.
Because the big man was there to cover up for an offense that was struggling mightily to get the job done, the Rockets prevailed.
Howard will continue to develop chemistry with his teammates in fits and starts. The good news is that he looks to be in solid shape and is willing to adapt to a style of play that's best for his team. Those are two things we couldn't have said about him last year.
But there's always a danger that D12 will get frustrated, say something stupid to the press or otherwise throw a wrench into the works.
If he can continue to hold down the paint on defense while contributing to Houston's transition attack, the Rockets could eventually pair elite stopping power with an offense that resembles the one that set the league on fire last year.
That's a long way off, but there were signs against Toronto that such a thing could be possible.
In some ways, it's impressive that Houston—a team that had to undergo a fundamental change in style to accommodate Howard—is off to a 5-3 start. If Dwight and the Rockets can continue to stay positive as they work through their growing pains, their chemistry is only going to improve.
When that happens, the Rockets could really take off.