Rihanna’s "Same Ol’ Mistakes" was a perfect reminder that change is needed for a locker room that was pretty happy for once, after the Rockets knocked off the Minnesota Timberwolves 129-105 on Monday. The song was a reminder of what the Rockets have been doing wrong lately: ignoring Howard and pressing on offense and defense.
The Rockets got Howard involved early Monday, which led him to finish with 19 points and eight rebounds. His 11 shots -- on touches from drives to the basket from the guards, putbacks and lobs with a few post-ups -- marked the first time since March 12 that he reached double figures in attempts. Howard had gone 14 games without reaching double digits in shots. It's not a matter of forcing things on Howard; if he sees the ball more, it takes pressure off James Harden, the leading scorer.
“Any time you’re able to get easy buckets and get going early, it sets the tone for us,” Howard said. “It allows us to go out there and be free, so the guys did a good job of finding me under the paint, and it was easy to get easy buckets.”
The Rockets were 6-8 in the stretch in which Howard was either frozen out or disinterested. Howard's getting double-digit shots doesn’t guarantee success, but it gives the Rockets a key 1-2 punch for this portion of the season. It also helps Howard play with more confidence.
“He was good. Big fella was dominant,” J.B. Bickerstaff said. “He was getting to his spot, he was running, getting deep seals, and the guys were getting him the ball. That was great to see. He had success there, and he was punishing those guys on the interior. That kind of gets his mojo going a little bit. He was working on the offensive glass. He was great.”
The victory, coupled with Utah’s home loss to Dallas, has moved Houston into a tie for the eighth seed in the Western Conference. If the Rockets win Wednesday against Sacramento, they will clinch a playoff berth, regardless of what the Jazz do against the Los Angeles Lakers. Houston owns the tiebreaker over Utah.
The Rockets know all they have to do is win. That’s it. That sounds easy enough, but sometimes -- as evidenced by losses to Dallas and Phoenix last week -- Houston makes it hard.
Houston tends to press, and Howard has asked for his team to relax. It seems Howard’s choice of music -- slow ballads -- represents the mood this team needs, especially with so much on the line. Just chill and play.
“We trying to get into the playoffs, man,” Patrick Beverley said. “That fire is under us, and it’s lit. We just out there running around, causing havoc defensively, getting run-outs offensively, sharing the ball, playing together, talking. It’s not how we want it to be toward the end of the season, but we’re starting to do the right things. Better late than never.”
It’s clear that this is Harden’s team. He was fantastic again. He scored 34 points on 21 shots and made five of seven 3s. He also had six assists. The minutes are piling up, as he played 31 Monday night, which marked the first time in the past 10 games that he didn’t go over the 40-minute mark.
Harden did not play in the fourth quarter, something that’s a rarity. Bickerstaff has no choice but to use Harden that much, given the delicate state the Rockets are in, and it wouldn’t surprise anyone if Harden got heavy minutes Wednesday.
“I think before that I played seven or eight straight games, all the minutes in the second half,” Harden said. “It was good to get some rest, and guys got some reps and some good minutes.”
If the Rockets are to play postseason basketball in April, Harden can’t do it alone. He needs Howard. And Howard needs him.
It doesn’t matter if this is a short-term thing, with Howard’s free-agency status uncertain. The Rockets need to not repeat the mistakes of the past few weeks, or they’ll be watching the postseason instead of playing in it.
“We don’t want to put pressure on ourselves,” Howard said. “We know the situation that we’re in. The best thing to do right now is just play. We control what we can control. We can’t look at different scenarios and hope this team loses and this team plays bad. We’ve just got to go out there and handle our business.”