Dwight Howard to return, but James Harden to remain the same attacking player


James Harden’s MVP candidacy is not so much about 27.2 points and seven assists a game as much as this: His aggressive play and high-scoring games have kept the Rockets at the three seed in the West and winning two-thirds of their games despite Dwight Howard being on the sidelines. Injuries have unsettled the Rockets all season, but Harden has been the rock keeping them an elite team.

Now Howard is about to return.

What does that mean for Harden’s style of play, where he dominates the ball and plays off the pick-and-roll. Does he need to give up touches now to keep Howard happy in the post?

Howard told Harden not to change, reports Sam Amick of the USA Today.

“He said, ‘I’ll be returning soon, but I don’t want you to change your game,” Harden told USA TODAY Sports on Tuesday. “He said, ‘I don’t want you to do anything different. Just go out there and do what you do, and do it at a high level every single night.’ He said, ‘I’ll adjust to you,’ and that right there gave me confidence to just play, and play my game and not worry about anything else. Once you hear that from your other leader, then you know you can just go out there and play the way that I’ve been playing.

“I definitely needed to hear that, and he told it to me. So right there that gave me all the confidence in the world, not to try to force it to get him into a rhythm or try to do anything forceful. I can just play my game. Him telling me that just gave me the green light to just go out there and just be the James Harden that I’ve been being all season.”

Harden and Howard talked at a meeting with veteran guard Jason Terry in attendance about a month ago in Denver, according to the report.

Howard may return Wednesday night against the Pelicans. The Rockets need some help up front; Terrence Jones had been playing well but is out with partially collapsed lung. Howard should improve the Rockets’ defense, giving them more rim protection inside.

Harden is going to have to get Howard some touches, but if Howard is true to his work and does try to play off Harden the Rockets will be better for it. I may need to see that to believe it. And Harden admits in the piece it will take a little time for them to find a real comfort level.

However, Harden feels he has the green light, that’s good for the Rockets and dangerous for the rest of the league — when those two have been on the court together this season the Rockets are +9.8 per 48 minutes.

Maybe the Rockets will hit their stride at the right time.

Kevin McHale plans to have Dwight Howard return to lineup Wednesday against Pelicans


Dwight Howard has missed the last 26 games for the Rockets due to injury, but thanks to the brilliance of James Harden, the team has gone 17-9 without him.

If Kevin McHale gets his way, Houston won’t be without much longer.

From Jenny Dial Creech of the Houston Chronicle:

McHale says depending on how Dwight Howard feels today, he plans to play him tomorrow in New Orleans

Dwight Howard said he felt good after a practice in Indiana today. He and the staff will talk tomorrow and if he is up to it, he will play.

Coach McHale on Dwight Howard: “We plan to play him unless what we did today bothers him.”

Howard would be on a minutes restriction, but getting him reacclimated in any capacity for the final 12 games of the regular season is important for the team’s chemistry heading into the playoffs.

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The Rockets are at third place in the Western Conference standings, two up on Portland and two-and-a-half back of Memphis. Howard has averaged 16.3 points, 11 rebounds and 1.4 blocked shots this season, while playing 32.2 minutes per contest in 32 total appearances.

Despite what Larry Bird says, coach Frank Vogel says Paul George “not ready” to play


“I think he has to go through a series of tests this week, just like we’ve always been doing to see where he’s at. I think he’s cleared by the doctors to play, but obviously he’s not in shape. Just because he’s cleared to play, doesn’t mean he’s in shape to play. And I don’t want Paul to go out there until he feels comfortable with his conditioning and the way he’s practicing.”

That was Pacers’ president Larry Bird speaking Monday about the potential return of Paul George to the Pacers’ rotation. Bird said he expects George to play this season.

Before the Pacers’ latest loss that night, coach Frank Vogel was not nearly as optimistic about a return, as reported by Candace Buckner of the Indy Star.

Later, Vogel offered the opposite: “There’s a lot of layers to that, so he hasn’t been cleared to play for us.”

Vogel, who has had to face daily questions about a possible return more than the player and the president, repeated that George was cleared to practice. When told that Bird mentioned the clearance was to play, which would be a dramatic difference, Vogel replied: “Well, that’s what Larry said.”

“Like I said,” Vogel continued, “there’s a lot of layers to it. He’s not ready. He hasn’t reached our level of what we feel he’s ready to play.”

The discrepancy may just be a matter of semantics between Bird and Vogel. George has been cleared to practice, but that is different than having gone through contact practices pain-free and being in shape to return. George is somewhere on that spectrum.

But the Pacers look like a team in need of a savior. Or at least a jolt.

Monday night the Pacers fell to the Rockets when they were unable to contain James Harden, Indy’s sixth loss in a row. While a lot of teams struggle with the aggressive nature of Harden’s game, Indiana’s defense has been a mess of late, allowing 111.6 points per 100 possessions in those six losses (which is the worst in the NBA in that stretch and worse than any NBA team’s season numbers). Roy Hibbert says the Pacers are taking the easy way out on defense, but whatever is going on it’s not been pretty.

Indiana has fallen from a team that looked like a playoff lock to one a game back of eight-seed Boston with some work to do. George — at least a healthy George — would be a big help with that. That said, the Pacers invested a lot of money in George’s new contract, and they need to take the big-picture view here — a grand push for the eight seed is not as important as being whole in future years.

The reality? The return is up to George and when he’s physically and mentally ready. No matter what Vogel or Bird or anyone else says.

Roy Hibbert on Pacers’ defensive struggles: ‘I think that sometimes we take the easy way out’


James Harden torched the Pacers for 44 points in Houston’s Monday night victory, and while it was the eighth time he’s dropped more than 40 on someone this season, it was the continuation of an ongoing struggle for the Pacers.

The loss was Indiana’s sixth straight, and for a team that’s built its identity on the defensive end of the floor in recent seasons, that’s where the problems currently lie — ones Harden was simply able to further expose.

Roy Hibbert is the team’s anchor defensively, and gave some honest answers after this one about what exactly needs to be fixed.

From Candace Buckner of the Indianapolis Star:

[T]he Pacers are sliding because their defense is declining. On Saturday, they allowed the Brooklyn Nets to hit a 61.3 field-goal accuracy, the highest allowed by a Pacers team ever. The past five games, four opponents have reached the 100-point mark and over that stretch, the Pacers have averaged 22.2 personal fouls per game, seventh highest among their peers.

“I’m going to give you a real answer, not a (B.S.) answer,” Roy Hibbert said, before offering his opinion on what has been ailing the defense. “I think that sometimes we take the easy way out.

“In the years past, we’ve been able to earn no calls and get stops,” Hibbert continued, “and I think the easier way out has been to foul, myself included. I haven’t done a good job guarding my own man and sometimes my help rotation is not as good as it has been. Sometimes we foul and that’s what’s leading the guys to shoot a lot of free throws.”

Indiana is just a game out of the final playoff spot in the East, but it’s a crowded race that sees four teams separated by just a game-and-a-half in the standings.

The return of Paul George may be coming, which would certainly be a plus. But if the defensive cohesiveness doesn’t return as well, it’ll hardly make a difference.

Five Things We Learned in NBA Monday: Remember Golden State is great defensive team


If you watch closely every night in the NBA you can learn a little something. We know you are busy and can’t keep up with every game, so we’re here to help with those lessons from another night in the Association. Here’s what you missed while finding hundred-year-old baseball cards in your family Bible.…

1) Golden State shows off league-best defense in win. There are people who tend to gloss over that Golden State has the best defense in the NBA — the Warriors allow 97.4 points per 100 possessions on the season, two points better than the second-place Bucks. That defense was on full display Monday. Washington shot just 33.3 percent against the Warriors and were 1-of-18 shooting in the third quarter when Golden State took control of the game with a 22-2 run on their way to a 30-point win. The combination of Andrew Bogut up front and Draymond Green just blanketed the Wizards. Golden State breaks convention, they switch almost every pick-and-roll, which should create mismatches but Stephen Curry has stepped up on that end of the floor, and that showed Monday as well. To be fair, the Wizards also just missed shots — 44.4 percent of their shots were uncontested, they still shot just 33 percent on those. Still, this smothering defense is why the Warriors are legitimate title contenders. That and they can play a little offense, too.

2) James Harden drops another 44 and Rockets get another win. Add Monday night’s numbers to the James Harden for MVP file: He scored 44 points on 10-of-21 shooting, he got to the free throw line 22 times, and he dished out seven assists. Most importantly Houston picked up another win, 110-100 over Indiana, and the fact they remain on track to be home for at least the first round of the playoffs while being without Dwight Howard (who will be back sooner rather than later) may be Harden’s best MVP pitch.

3) Chicago gets Jimmy Butler back, but it was the Nicola Mirotic show. The Bulls needed the return of Jimmy Butler, who had been out since March 1 with an elbow injury.However, he brought back the expected amount of rust (6-of-20 shooting). This is where rookie Nicola Mirotic took over — he had 28 points, 14 in the fourth quarter, to lift the Bulls past the Hornets. Mirotic was scoring at the rim but was also 4-of-6 in the midrange. The Bulls also got 27 from Pau Gasol in a win that tied the Bulls with the Raptors for the coveted three seed out East.

4) Boston moves back into eight seed thanks to triple-double from Evan Turner. With the Hornets losing to Chicago, the Celtics had a chance to move back into the eight seed in a key game vs. Brooklyn (who also has eyes on a playoff spot). Of course, that  meant it was time for the Evan Turner show. No, seriously it was. He had 19 points, 12 assists and 10 rebounds.  Turner can be up and down, but he picked a good time to be up.  Combine that with Brooklyn’s 1-of-17 shooting stretch and Boston gets a win.

5) Deron Williams still has a few moves left. The Nets lost, and their playoff chances dimmed, but Deron Williams broke out a pretty sweet double crossover that is worth passing along.