Kevin McHale on Dwight Howard’s back: “It’s night and day from where he was last year”

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LOS ANGELES — If the Rockets are going to take the step forward they expect this season it’s going to come down to their defense getting much better. And if their defense is going to get better that’s going to come down in large part to Dwight Howard regaining his Defensive Player of the Year form.

We haven’t seen that from Howard in years, since the back issues he started to have in Orlando that followed him to Los Angeles and Houston.

But Rockets coach Kevin McHale says Howard is healthy enough to be that guy again this year.

“(His back is) way better this year,” McHale said before his team took to the court to open the season against the Lakers. You can see it he’s bending better, he’s moving better, it’s night and day from where he was last year at this time. And I really felt last year at this time he was night and day ahead of where he was in July when we signed him.

“This summer part of him wanted to play with Team USA and all that stuff but part of him just needed to stretch and just take care of himself and I’m glad he did.”

Much of the focus since Howard was in Los Angeles was on his mental makeup, critics saying he wasn’t tough enough, was too much about having fun and not taking the game seriously. But a lot of what kept Howard from being Howard the past two seasons was physical — his back wasn’t right.

If it is now that’s good news for Rockets fans. McHale said he looks good, although after missing part of camp he may see slightly reduced minutes to start the season.

“Dwight is a freakish athlete,” McHale said. “He didn’t run a lot this summer, did a lot of stretching, a lot of strengthening, he came to camp and said ‘my wind is not going to be good,’ then in three days he’s running up and down the court. I was like ‘I wish I could have done that.'”

He can show Kobe Bryant and the Lakers how he looks on national television Tuesday night.