Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Anything But Predictable

Person A wakes up with a routine every day. Alarm clock, shower, breakfast- then maybe off to school or work. Forming these patterns keeps them in order and set up for success.

Person B wakes up every day and it's roller coaster from the second they step up out of the bed fifteen minutes late. They just try to hold on for dear life and hope they make it to five o'clock.

The Golden State Warriors are Person A. The Houston Rockets are Person B.

This isn't to say the Rockets don't have their own routines in preparing for games. Their playing style is just hard to predict, which so far this postseason has been an advantage and disadvantage simultaneously.

In round one against Mavericks, Houston looked every bit the 2 seed they earned following the regular season. They won 4-1, and confidence was at an all-time high.

In the semi-finals against the Clippers, they lost by a total of 74 points in three of the first four games. Their lone win was by a mere six points. They'd go on to close out the series with three double digit wins in a row by a combined 46 points.

Regardless of the remarkable comeback win (only the ninth such occurrence in NBA history), the NBA world gave Houston zero chances to beat the stellar Warriors led by NBA MVP Stephen Curry. After two close losses (Game 1 by four, Game 2 by 1), Houston didn't do much to dispel the notion the Warriors would win. But they showed if they were going down, they'd do so swinging with all they had.

Until Game 3.

Game 3 brought back memories of the two Clippers' blowouts. Curry's Warriors not only deflated Rocket Nation's balloon. They popped it and threw it in an incinerator, winning 115-80 in Houston. Curry was simply dazzling, scoring 40 points on 12-19 shooting (7-9 from beyond the arc). The Warriors did everything right, whether it was spreading the ball (26 assists to Houston's 15), or snagging it off the boards (60-39 rebounding advantage). They shot 45% from the field to Houston's 33%.

The Rockets' game is dependent on kicking, slashing and most of all- hitting three's. Going 5 for 25 at the worst time of the season hurt their entire effort. Not a single player had a positive plus/minus. James Harden was anything but an MVP candidate, going 3-16 for 17 points. His deadly stepback jumper wasn't falling, which spelled doom for Houston.

Howard had a respectable 14/14- yet without the deep ball to stretch the league's best defense, there was no shot at establishing a threatening post game playing from such a large deficit.

Down 3-0 after a 35 point loss at home would surely spell defeat in Game 4. Houston would just keel over and clear the way for the Warriors to get 9 days off until the NBA Finals and the Cleveland Cavaliers. Critics would begin the Harden bashing (if they hadn't already). Dwight's effort to get a ring would surely be snuffed out and a summer full of #DwightCantWin would begin.

Except Houston didn't get that memo. No really. There was a memo:

Instead of playing defeated at home again, Houston not only made it competitive. They dominated the first quarter, shooting 77% and scoring 45 points (8/9 from three). Video Game Josh Smith was back and the 2K Rockets were giving it their best shot, at one point building a 25 point lead. Curry took a nasty spill leaping over a pump-faking Trevor Ariza, landing on his back, arm and head. It not only scared the Warriors faithful, but Houston's as well. You might be in a Western Conference Finals game, but not a single person wanted to see the great Curry get injured. After a few minutes, Curry walked to the back with his arm being held. Ironically, Golden State played better after. They would get the score to within 10 points at halftime behind the hot shooting of Klay Thompson.

Curry passed all the concussion protocol tests, and halfway through the third returned as Warriors fans across the country breathed a sigh of relief. It could be debated if it was right or wrong- but teh coaching staff, trainers, Curry's father and Curry deemed him fit to play. Curry let off  a wonky 22 foot stepback, and many wondered if he was anything remotely close to the regular season MVP who won over the country. He'd update everyone after the game on his status.

"It was all minor stuff compared to how it looked. But I'll get some good rest and be ready to go. Since it happened to now, nothing has gotten worse."
The Warriors would drain 20 three-pointers (nine more than in their 35 point blowout), yet it was not enough on Monday night.

While the attention was on Curry to see how he was affected, Harden showed the pressure of being down 3-0 against the best team in the NBA hadn't affected him. He went 13-22 (7-10 from three) with nine rebounds and five assists. That was the kind of game he and the Rockets desperately needed following such a humiliating loss at home the game before.

"I always want to take it out on my opponent in a good way," Harden said. "Just being aggressive, taking shots, getting to the basket, not really forcing anything and allowing the game to come to me." - James Harden

Many viewed the lone Rockets' win as an anomaly and an abomination.  It wouldn't happen again to such a deep and talented Warriors team. After all- Curry was hurt. Except that excuse holds no water, as they got closer without him before he returned to form in the fourth quarter. Like it or not, Houston simply played better and sustained the lead wire-to-wire. But there was one more bone of contention for Houston skeptics:

Howard did it again. His unnecessary retaliation against a missed Bogut foul earned him a Flagrant 1. Many questioned it, after Al Horford was ejected for a lesser foul against Matthew Delladova the night before. If anything, it would be reviewed by the league and he'd be suspended for Game 5- dealing the Rockets a sure deathblow.

But the assumed suspension never happened:

This ruling was called into question, leaving us to wonder what exactly has to happen for a Flagrant 2 to be called? I don't think I want to find out at this point.

All of this brings us to Wednesday night- another elimination game for Harden and his Rockets. They are the first team since the 2006 Suns to win four such games in a row. The doubters are out in full force. Do I blame them? Nope. Houston is the lesser team. Even if the series was 2-2, they'd be at a disadvantage without homecourt to the tremendous Warriors. History has told us it can't be done. No team can win four games in a row after being down 3-0 (116-0). Does that matter to Harden? Nope.

“Most teams can’t come back from being down 3-1, but we did. We have to continue to fight — to go out there and play Rockets basketball. It’s win or go home. We understand that.”

Many look to Houston's coming back from 3-1 as a sign to believe. It in no way carries over from one series the next, especially against a team such as Golden State. But it does show the resilience and the ability Houston has to do what most think is impossible. It's easy to dismiss the underdogs against such a likeable favorite. Aside from Rockets fans, who doesn't want a Finals involving LeBron and Steph? It would be a ratings dream for Adam Silver, and exciting basketball for fans everywhere.

I discussed last week reasons why people dislike the Rockets. Yet there's one reason that trumps all.

People hate what they can't explain. 

Analysts and pundits get paid for living to research teams and players. They discuss who will win  and why. They discuss why the team won, and what led to the other losing. They pour through stats, plays and anything they can get their hands on to look as intelligent as possible.

But what explains a team being on the verge of basketball death not once. Not twice. Not three times- but four...and coming out on top?

Not a damn thing. No number of statistics, graphs or video breakdowns will enlighten anyone any further on why Houston has managed to stave off elimination four games in a row. Their unpredictable nature is not only frustrating for everyone involved (media, coaches, players, fans)...but also an advantage for them.

But being the team that is supposed to lose takes the pressure off a bit even on the road. The Warriors should close Houston out tonight at home. If for some reason they don't, all the skeptics will be looking Curry and Kerr's way.

Does Golden State have any idea what Houston team is coming to Oakland tonight?


And that's just how the Rockets prefer it.

*All quotes in this article obtained from ESPN.com and Jonathan Feigen of HoustonChronicle.com. 

Like it? Love it? Hate it? Let me know @SeanNeutron.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Someone's Gotta Be the Bad Guy

If there’s one thing going for the Rockets heading into tonight’s Western Conference Finals match-up against the Warriors, it’s that they can get under their opponent’s skin. They have built a reputation outside of Houston for being unlikeable. It comes from a multitude of reasons- some fair and some not.

The first is Dwight Howard. I’ll admit, I wasn’t crazy about him during the end of his Magic run. He seemed entitled and hadn’t progressed his game to it should have been after almost eight years in the league. He threw Stan Van Gundy under the bus, and treated most situations like a joke. When he went to the Lakers, I didn’t feel any dislike. Just disappointment. He wasn’t half the player he was back in 2009 when he led his Magic to the Finals (a 4-0 sweep courtesy of the Lakers). He was constantly hurt or playing poorly.

Now after almost two seasons in Houston, Howard still has a reputation for being not liked around the league. Gary Payton commented on it back in November:

 “I think he’s disliked by a lot of players,” Payton said. “What Dwight does is, you know you see all the smiles and all the antics, that is getting on player’s nerves. To get this guy, Kevin Durant, to do what he did, you know it’s starting to become a problem with players, because Kevin Durant doesn’t really talk to anybody … [Durant] goes at people that are fake with stuff. Only fake guys.”

To be fair to Dwight, Durant did seem on edge all season. Injuries to OKC on top of under-performing made the 2014 NBA MVP more volatile than usual. The slightest of critiques seemed to set him off, whether from players on court such as Dwight- or the media asking him questions. But the fact remains that Dwight apparently did something to draw the ire of one of the league’s most respected players.

Or it’s possible Patrick Beverley’s shot on Russell Westbrook from the 2013 playoffs was in the back of Durant’s head at the time, too.

Another reason for the hate on Houston? James Harden.

Harden has the ability to slice up a defense on any given night. His handles are treacherous. His shot is deadly. And his ability to get in the lane and draw fouls is mesmerizing. Or totally the worst thing ever- depending how you look at it. While a player such as Durant gets praised for his ability to create contact and shoot a high number of free throws, Harden gets slammed for it by almost everyone. Almost.

Back in November, Doc Rivers expressed high praise for Harden’s abilities to get to the line:

"He’s an expert at it. He actually does get fouled on most of them. He throws those arms up. It’s funny, in the playoffs teams are really aware of it and he doesn’t get those calls. It’s interesting how that changes to me, but it’s hard. It’s hard to prepare for. He’s coming at you. You want to stop him. He’s good at it. He’s as good of a guard as I can remember. Grant Hill, if you remember, did it a lot with cuts, the way he would cut into you and run into you and throw his arms up. Very few guys with the ball do that as well as him and not lose the ball. It’s amazing.”

But where did this urge to create contact come from? Harden himself? Surprisingly, no. It came from his high-school coach on a bet:

“To turn Harden from a sniper into a driver, Pera put him through daily X-out drills, in which Harden had to convert eight straight layups while Pera punished him with an arm pad. They made a standing bet: If Harden shot more than six free throws in a game, Pera owed him a hamburger; if Harden shot fewer than six, he owed Pera sprints. Harden discovered ways to contort his limbs through and around defenders, collecting whistles and patties.”

Whether you love it or hate it, it gets results. Harden averaged 8.8 free throws made a game, and 10.2 attempted. It wasn’t just flopping as some suggested. It’s an aspect of the game opponents have to plan for and attempt to mitigate it. And when Harden doesn’t get a call? He whines…just like literally every other player in the league. It’s not solely a Harden thing. It’s the culture of today’s NBA.

But a chief complaint the last couple of years for Houston wasn’t Howard or Harden. It all seemed to begin with the aforementioned Beverley hit on Westbrook. It placed a spotlight on him, and his aggressive nature on defense was seen as annoying and overwhelming. What’s the alternate option? Not trying on defense? Playing loosely?

While others seemed to express disdain for it, Beverley capitalized on it- dubbing himself Mr. 94 Feet. As in, he covers you the entire way down the floor from end to end.

A common gripe amongst NBA fans is that head coach Kevin McHale simply wasn’t good enough to be a head coach. His small sample size in Minnesota was a failure, and he hadn’t made much headway as head coach of the Rockets. McHale’s been seen as not having the skills of to match up with the likes of Greg Popovich, Doc Rivers or Steve Kerr. Yet here he is. Regardless of whether or not Houston moves on to the NBA Finals, McHale has overachieved and adapted to an ever-changing scenery. His move to keep Harden on the bench in the fourth quarter of Game 6 against the Clippers might have been his finest as Rockets’ head coach.

One of the newest reasons to dislike Houston? They got who many perceived as an underachieving player (Josh Smith) for almost nothing back in December. His time in Detroit was largely forgettable, and many saw it as a cash grab for Smith with little effort put forth. He took many bad shots, especially from three point land. Never mind the fact that Joe Dumars should have never made the move in the first place. While many doubted Smith’s abilities and chances to transition to Houston’s style, the former AAU teammate of Howard has fit in nicely. Now the ire isn’t from his lack of effort, but the unexplainable successful nature of his game- most recently against the Clippers.

Smith told the Houston Chronicle that Houston won’t shy away from getting physical if need be.

 “I mean, it’s the postseason. So I don’t think at this point none of the teams are going to be playing passive. It’s time to lace the shoes up, heighten the shorts up a little higher and get after it a little bit. I expect the players dictating these games, as deep as the postseason is right now. I look forward to a very competitive series.”

Regardless of the team’s reputation prior to this series against the 67-15 Golden State Warriors, Houston had an uphill battle to gain any groundswell of support. The Warriors are an excellent team- fun and flashy. Unlike the Suns of Steve Nash (7 Seconds or Less), they have substance to their style. They are dazzling, deadly, and deep. They don’t just have two studs (Curry and Thompson) who can kill you behind the arc. They can go big when it matters (Maurice Speights, David Lee, Andrew Bogut). But like Houston, they can adapt to small ball as well, using Harrison Barnes and Draymond Greene as stretch fours. Shaun Livingston can be a nightmare as a 6’7″ point guard on defense, as well as his vision on offense. Andre Iguodala is no slouch either, providing an x-factor for Golden State.

 The Rockets and Warriors already have a little history, stemming back from November:

“I didn’t bump into him,” Ariza said. “I was running and he just turned into me. That was it.”

Maybe the final reason is because Houston simply shouldn’t be here. After last summer’s multiple whiffs in free agency, getting Trevor Ariza was viewed as underwhelming for a team with a GM obsessed with star-finding. Houston shouldn’t have been able to finish second in the West, win their division.They shouldn’t have been able to seamlessly transition Smith, Corey Brewer and Pablo Prigioni. But they did.

But they sure as hell shouldn’t have been able to beat the Clippers after being down 3-1, right? But they did.

Harden and Howard have been seen as not being leaders and not being able to win an NBA Championship. And now that they are facing the most talented team in the NBA? I don’t see that perception changing.

Every story needs a hero and a villain. Viewers need a side to  pull for, and side to seethe. That's what gets ratings. Not that the Rockets mind. They seem to play better with a chip on their shoulder and their backs against the wall.

Like it? Love it? Hate it? Let me know @SeanNeutron.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

On the Wrong Side of History

Someone is going home very unhappy Sunday afternoon. 

"I like the dreams of the future better than the history of the past." - Thomas Jefferson

Those who are blessed with immense talents (whatever the field one may be in) rarely ever take the time to appreciate what they have accomplished. They just move on to the next thing, always looking to evolve. Regression is feared, and being complacent is looked at as a disease.

Well, unless you are Kanye West. Dude loves him some Kanye and practically invented the phrase "pat yourself on the back". 

If the Clippers and Rockets plan on advancing to the Western Conference Finals, they should embrace the potential of making history and not getting lost in the past. Clippers stole home court advantage after a Game 1 117-101 thrashing in Houston? Big deal. Houston wins the next game by six.

Only six points? The Clippers respond and win games 3 and 4 by a combined 58 points. Not to be outdone the Rockets win by 21 in Game 5, and use a 34 point swing on the road to even up the series 3-3.

What's that all mean now?


Both teams know what is on the line. If players need motivation at this point in the season, they might as well just not show up. The Clippers (and Chris Paul) have been on the verge of being to their first ever Western Conference Finals. The Rockets are trying to reverse this and become the ninth team to win a series after being down 3-1. (There is a franchise precedent: the 1995 Rockets did this against the Phoenix Suns in the semifinals.)

credit: ESPN Stats and Info
Now the only advantage that either team has is Houston's home court. Clutch City is passionate about their basketball, and fans will be on full display Sunday afternoon.  This is the Game 7 they so desperately wanted to get to before Damian Lillard destroyed everything.

Does that scare the Clippers? Likely not, after opening the series by deflating Rockets fans everywhere. They led 3-1, and those teams all-time are 219-8 (96%).

But home teams win 80% of the time, favoring Houston- who have also won two in a row.  Paul's Clippers have played in four Game 7's together (their second in two series).

While all these nuggets of statistical info are intriguing, come tomorrow afternoon they mean nothing. All the adjustments have been made by both Doc Rivers and Kevin McHale. Chris Paul's minutes were limited early on. Doc was daring McHale to foul DeAndre Jordan, leaving him to sink or swim at the free-throw line. Josh Smith was shifted into the starting line up. James Harden was held on the bench for the entire fourth quarter in Game 6. All these moves have paid off so far and gotten each team to a deciding Game 7. (The one last move that can be made is neither coach employing the "hack-a-whoever" strategy.)

Tomorrow is not about adjusting is much as it is about sustaining. Both teams have shown they are susceptible to losing leads and momentum. The Clippers admitted they had even taken their foot off the gas on Thursday night, allowing Josh Smith and Corey Brewer to look like 2010's LeBron James and Dwayne Wade.

Each squad is left with major questions. In a "what have you done for me lately" sports world, are the Clippers as good as advertised in the first four games? Or are we going to see the team who has disappeared the last two games? Can Blake Griffin keep his gas tank full, or will he be running on empty in the fourth?

After a regular season where Houston won its division and finished second in the West, can they be that team and finish strong? Or are they the team who is prone to blowouts and goes through long periods of sloppy play and bad shots? After a sub-par Game 6, James Harden must have a statement game to assure a showdown against NBA MVP Stephen Curry.

With it being the lone game left in the second round, the stage is set for the winner to receive an inordinate amount of adulation heading into a Western Conference Finals match-up against the very scary Golden State Warriors.

The Warriors have come out to play. Who's going to embrace the future and join them?

Like it? Love it? Let me know @SeanNeutron.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Rocket Science? More Like Rocket Power.

There are moments as a fan that only happen because of one characteristic: loyalty. Never give up on your team, no matter how steep the mountain looks. And if they fail to climb it? So be it.

I should know this. A decade a go during the Yao Ming/Tracy McGrady days, T-Mac went and put his team on his back. Houston was down 74-64 with less than a minute to go.

"I have school early tomorrow. I'm just going to shower and hit the hay."

Wrong move, O'Brien.

Ten minutes later I walk back in the room and McGrady was swamped by his teammates with his hands extended, lying on the court. The basketball phenom had managed to tally 13 points in 35 seconds of game time with four threes, with one being part of a four point play. Houston won, the final three by T-Mac coming with 1.6 seconds left over three Spurs.

From then on I'd vow never to leave a game, no matter how daunting the situation looked. 

Fast forward to Thursday night.

Game 6 was tight for most of the first half, with the Clippers edging Houston, 64-62. Hope was not lost for the Rockets...but they were in the building which saw them get walloped by an average of 126-97 in games 3 and 4. To say there was a stigma for the Rockets and its fans is putting it mildly. If this team got down by double digits at all...especially in the second half- it'd be very easy to write them off.

It started harmlessly enough in the third, with JJ Redick drilling a three to put LA up 67-62. Then it started to add up..quickly. DeAndre Jordan blocked Dwight. Barnes hit a layup. Griffin hit a jumper. Before Houston blinked, they were down 71-62 with not even two minutes gone in the second half.

The Clippers did what they had done all series at home. They moved the ball, frustrated Houston into silly fouls, and Chris Paul was the maestro of LA's orchestra. With 2:34 left, the former Demon Deacon put his team up 89-70 with a jumper. Houston would close to within 13 by the end of the third. But 13 points on the road to this Clippers squad? Might as well make it fifty.

It was actually Houston's fiftieth time playing in a playoff game down by at least 10 points heading into the fourth. Their record in the previous 49?

SportsCenter's Robert Flores (an admitted Rockets fan) even casually mentioned the game, yet told viewers "it looks like the Clippers will be in the Western Conference Finals."

Game 5 saw Houston make all the right moves, never once giving up the lead after taking it in the first quarter. They looked sharp, confident and with purpose at home. But everyone expected that all to fade away under the bright lights of Hollywood. Except when the lights got brighter and the stage bigger, it wasn't who the usual suspects who brought the Rockets out of their basketball coma.

Ok, so they won. Obviously the comeback had to be because James Harden went off, and Dwight Howard was getting alley-ooped left and right. As I said yesterday:

"Los Angeles hasn't been kind to Howard in recent times, but tonight he and Harden must step up facing elimination."

What did you just say? Neither Harden nor Howard managed to score a field goal in the entire fourth quarter? Yeah, sure. You mean to tell me the two players Morey aligned stars for didn't have a direct effect offensively for Houston?

::gets handed box score::

Corey Brewer and Josh Smith?!

The duo rang up 29 points (15/14 respectively, 9-13 from the field) in the 4th.

Well, stats don't lie. Houston outscored the Clippers 40-15 in the final act of Thursday night, and none of it due to Harden or Howard offensively. But Howard did throw in 20 points and 21 boards, coming up big on the glass in the fourth. They finished on a 49-18 run in the final 14:34 of the game, 25-5 in the final 6:47. To add to the numbers, Houston went 7-11 from three, holding LAC to 5-27 from the field. After Jordan dominated the Rockets earlier in the series on the boards, Houston responded by out-rebounding the Clippers 24-8 in the fourth.

Josh Smith reigned clutch shot after clutch shot, as well as a key block towards the end. The tide had turned, and all of LA was reeling.

"Are we really getting beaten by Josh Smith at home in a game that could send us to the Western Conference Finals?" I know this because Mike Tirico reminded viewers once every five seconds.

Trust me, I didn't believe it either. Smith looked...smoove. I mean, smooth. There was no awkwardness to his shot. It looked bad at other times during the game, but you'd never have guessed he was  a a player written off by the Pistons in December.

Once Houston went up 10 with a little over a minute ago, the writing was on the wall for LA and its fans. There would in fact be a Game 7 in Houston on Sunday. And while 3-1 after two blowouts looked more than favorable for the Clippers.. a Game 7 on the road to the second seed in the West does not. No matter how good Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan, JJ Redick and Austin Rivers have been- momentum has now shifted to the Rockets. 

Houston proved they can get their home crowd to get behind them, after blowing the Clippers out 124-103 in Game 5. They might be the two seed, but according to the majority of fans- they are the underdogs. This season is eerily reminiscent of Houston's '95 squad- an overachieving 6 seed who overcame a 20 point deficit at one point, and went on to defeat the top 3 seeds in the West on their way to an NBA Championship. One of which was the Suns, after trailing 3-1.

As I wrote before, the Rockets have been overachieving all year. If this was any other Rockets team, they would have folded by now- especially on the road. I shouldn't be here writing about a win. I should be writing about what could or should have been.

But the Rockets did win, and Sunday they'll look to continue their improbable run in the 2015 playoffs.

And no matter what, I'll be watching it through its entirety.

Like it? Love it? Hate it? Let me know @SeanNeutron.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

To Live, Die and Live Again in LA

Back in 2012, the Lakers figured they had their future cornerstone in Dwight Howard. He had worn out his stay in Orlando, the final act being his awkward relationship with then Magic coach Stan Van Gundy. 

Instead of Howard getting his dream to win a championship for a big market team with a ton of rich history and lineage, he got a nightmare of unfulfilled potential and resentment from the Laker fanbase. Love him, hate him- it just didn't work out as designed for either Howard or the Lakers.
The last image of Howard saw him foul out against the Spurs in a less than stellar performance, the final game of a 4 game sweep for San Antonio. His heart just was not in the City of Angels.

Next came the courting of Howard in free agency...or as I dubbed it, "The Dwight-pocalypse".

The Mavs, Warriors, Hawks, Rockets and Lakers were all competing to land the big man. Each team rolled out the red carpets for the former 2004 number one pick. No one was truly certain where he'd land, and even after the initial announcement of him being  Rocket was made...his flying to LA soon after started rumors of a possible waffling. Yet, all it was was a trip to inform Lakers brass of his decision: Howard was heading to Houston to team up with James Harden. He spoke with Houstonian and former WWE wrestler Booker T at the time:

"The one year was because I was traded there and I had one year left on the contract. I think a lot of people felt like I was just leaving L.A. because of everything that was going on and I couldn’t handle the pressure, anything like that. But I just felt like, with L.A., the direction of their team, wasn’t where I was trying to go. And I looked at the city and the team of Houston, I just felt like this team and this city was headed in a different direction and the right direction. One of writing their own history.”

He'd go on to say that, " I didn't run from LA, I ran to Houston." Definitely a glass half full approach.

His first season with Houston saw strides in his post game, yet he lacked the finesse of a player like his mentor, former Rocket great Hakeem Olajuwon. The pairing of him and Harden gave Houston the foundation it needed, but it was not ready to truly be a player in the West. They would go on to lose 4-2 to the Blazers in round one, courtesy of this:

This season saw the franchise make great strides, finishing 2nd in the West and Southwest Division Champs. But it wasn't because of Howard- but because of almost-MVP James Harden. Howard missed 41 games, and not even optimistic GM Daryl Morey was sure if Howard would be ready for the playoffs, or the effect he would have on them. But the time off helped, and the last ten games of the season prepared Howard for a first round 4-1 win over Dallas. Howard averaged 16.6 points, 13.8 rebounds and 3 blocks a game.

While Houston looked dominant against Dallas, before Game 5 they have looked anything but against the well-balanced Clippers.  Howard would often get in foul trouble, or fall victim to Hack-A-Howard. At times his temper would get the best of him, seeing him get T'd up in Game 4. DeAndre Jordan had the advantage, out-muscling Howard for rebounds and put-backs.

As a fan, I have never been so discouraged watching my team get owned in back-to-back games. The optimism was wavering, and everyone saw Game 5 as a mercy killing for the Rockets. Yet they responded with their backs against the wall.

After a Game 5 124-103 win in Houston, a different tone is set. Houston is still at a disadvantage on the road tonight, but they gained a little more credibility after adjusting to weaknesses in Game 3 and 4 blowouts. Their defense was rotating well. McHale threw Josh Smith in to the starting line-up, giving the more conservative Terrence Jones a chance to stabilize the second team. Harden (despite the flu) played with a ferocity not seen all series.

Make no mistake- going to the Staples Center for Howard and company right now is akin to an animal having to go to the vet. It's not what they want, but it has to be done if they want to live another game.

The iterations of Howard from teams past are dead and gone. The young, wide-eyed Orlando version who made fans "ooo" and "ahhh" with dunks and blocks out of bounds disappeared not long before his tense relationship with Van Gundy began. The veteran who outgrew his original team in hopes of playing for a big market contender eventually faded away, too. If his final year in Orlando began the snowball rolling down the hill, 2012 saw the snowball crush the city of LA at the bottom. No one ended up feeling satisfied. Everyone just wanted to move on to better things.

Now in his tenth season, Howard isn't taking things for granted. The entitlement he displayed a few years ago has gone to the wayside. In its place is a renewed appreciation and passion for the game, as by working with Olajuwon has proved old dogs can at least try and learn new tricks.

Los Angeles hasn't been kind to Howard in recent times, but tonight he and Harden must step up facing elimination. Franchises have small windows due to injuries, contracts, etc (as the Thunder could be a victim of next summer). There is absolutely no guarantee Howard will have a chance to get back to a conference final as he approaches his 30's- especially with his injury history.

If the Rockets can pull off what some would consider a miracle and win in The City of Angels tonight, maybe Howard can finally flick that devilish chip of winning when it matters in LA off his shoulder.

Like it? Love it? Hate it? Let me know @SeanNeutron.