This is why the Mavericks wanted James Harden and Dwight Howard.
Dallas was linked to Harden’s restricted free agency that never was and strongly pursued Howard as an unrestricted free agent.
But the Rockets landed both, trading for and extending Harden in 2012 and signing Howard outright in 2013.
The result: A 118-108 Houston win over Dallas in Game 1 Saturday. The Rockets outscored the Mavericks by 14 in 10 minutes with Harden and Howard sharing the court and got outscored by four in the game’s other 38 minutes.
For much of the season, Harden built his MVP case as a one-man team – an assessment the Rockets embraced – with Howard injured. But Game 1’s result really shouldn’t be too surprising. Houston outscored opponents by 10.5 points per 100 possessions with Harden and Howard on the floor this season – which would lead the NBA most years.
Tonight, Howard looked more explosive than he has in quite a while – and showed it immediately. He blocked as many shots in the first five minutes as he did in any other 2015 game, and he continued to protect the rim and punish the Mavericks on the other end with quick finishes at the rim if they helped off him. The center finished with 11 points, five rebounds and five blocks in just 17 foul-limited minutes.
Harden (24 points, making 15-of-17 free throws) played his usual role as the offensive focal point, but he mixed in a bit more passing than usual. He dished 11 assists, setting up Terrence Jones (19 points, nine rebounds and six assists) more than anyone.
In a matchup that featured plenty of back and forth before the postseason even began, the Rockets have their first series lead since 2009. Of course, 1-0 means only so much, and you can bet it will remain tight between these closely linked Texas teams
Jason Terry (16 points on 4-of-7 3-point shooting) and Corey Brewer (15 points on 3-of-4 3-point shooting), both of won a championship with Dallas in 2011, made several key plays for the Rockets. Trevor Ariza (pursued by the Mavericks in free agency last summer) and Josh Smith (pursued by Mavericks after getting bought out by the Pistons in December) had their moments for Houston, too.
On the flip side, Dallas forward Dirk Nowitzki – once offered a max contract by Houston – had 24 points on 10-of-14 shooting and eight rebounds, but the Rockets exposed his defensive shortcomings. Chandler Parsons – plucked from Houston as the Mavericks’ prized offseason acquisition – was uneven and went to the locker room at one point with knee troubles that sidelined him late in the regular season. Rajon Rondo – pursued – pursued by the Rockets via trade before Dallas landed him – had a big second quarter to get the Mavericks back in the game, but his fit issues remain overwhelming.
There’s so much overlap between these teams, but here’s the key difference: The Rockets looked much better entering the series, and they were much better in Game 1. Where will Dallas go from here? As the Mavericks know all too well, James Harden and Dwight Howard aren’t walking through that door for them.