When asked about it in the Rockets’ locker room at Toyota Center, Houston’s star center responded with his usual mix of jovial humor and brutal honesty:
In that movie, of course, stars Will Farrell and John C. Reilly often bicker before being forced to put aside their individual quirks for the sake of a shared goal.
It’s also a fitting analogy for Howard and Harden’s partnership in Houston.
They’ve never been especially close off the floor, and following a well-sourced report on this site of Howard being “unhappy” in Houston, some wondered if the alliance of stars formed in July 2013 had run its course.
Both Howard and Harden insist it has not, and they have responded over the past week by working together to accomplish what they haven’t done nearly enough of early in this 2015-16 season:
“One thing we’ve been talking about in this locker room is not allowing the noise and the distractions to really affect who we are and what we’re trying to accomplish as a team,” said Howard, who is averaging 13.0 points and 11.7 rebounds in just under 32 minutes per game this season.
“There’s always going to be talk, there’s always going to be noise, but we have to be able to keep that noise away and only hear the voices of each other.”
After Monday night’s 102-95 victory over visiting Charlotte, Howard’s Rockets have now won three consecutive games. That’s put them over .500 (15-14) for the first time since early November.
“We’re thankful that the noise came out, because it brought our group together,” interim coach J.B. Bickerstaff told SheridanHoops on Monday. “No one on the inside said those things that supposedly were said. Nobody on the inside started sparking those flames. We’ve been consistent in our message that it’s only about the team and only about the group of guys we have here.
“On the court, if someone knocks your teammate down, you go pick him up,” Bickerstaff continued. “You go support him and lift him up. Right now, our guys are lifting each other up. They could’ve very easily jumped on the bandwagon of the rumors, but they didn’t. Instead, they carried their teammate along with them, and I think it’s been great for us.”
PLAYING THROUGH ADVERSITY
After Sheridan’s column last Tuesday, USA Today’s Sam Amick followed up the next day by noting that the Rockets expect Howard to opt out of his current contract at the end of this season.
Sources close to the Rockets say Howard’s opt-out plans are exclusively due to the rising salary cap and the potential for a richer contract. Indeed, that makes the most financial sense. However, that didn’t stop many onlookers from tying the reports together and assuming Howard was planning his exit.
Howard denied it, of course, pointing to the fact that he specifically chose Houston – with Harden – as his preferred partners just over two years ago. He explained that any displeasure shown by him or the team was simply due to losing games, adding that his full focus was on elevating Houston back to its expected status as a championship contender.
“I’ve talked to Dwight,” Bickerstaff said. “He’s committed to helping this team win. That’s what I believe, and all the other stuff is noise.”
Even so, some around the NBA doubted Howard’s sincerity in his devotion to Houston, given how his exit from Orlando was handled over three years ago.
A week later, though, the proof is in the results on the floor. The Rockets have convincingly won three consecutive games since the mid-week drama, including impressive wins over the likely playoff-bound Clippers and Hornets. Against the Clippers and fellow star center DeAndre Jordan, Howard dominated the paint with 22 points and 14 rebounds on 8-of-11 shooting.
“My teammates did an excellent job of finding me early and getting me in position to score,” Howard said after the game, clearly showing appreciation for his increased role in the offense. “We were talking, we were moving [the ball]. When we continue to do that, great things will happen for us.”
Despite a woeful 5-10 start to a season that began with championship aspirations and led to coach Kevin McHale’s firing, the Rockets have already climbed back to the No. 6 seed in the West and are just one game back of the No. 4 seed, which would mean home court in at least one playoff series.
“I think the last couple games, we’ve just been trying to focus on playing free, having a good time and winning,” Howard said. “Everybody’s been on the same page.
“We played defense, we played hard, and we were focused, but everyone had fun in doing all that stuff,” he added. “We’ve just got to play free and not allow things to affect us in a bad way.”
STATISTICAL EVIDENCE OF IMPROVEMENT
In reality, signs of improvement have been there for some time. The Rockets have now won 10 of their past 14 games, a winning percentage of above .700. In December, Houston’s eight wins are second-most in the entire NBA, trailing only Golden State.
Advanced analytics reflect their improvement, too. Entering this week, the Rockets were fourth in the league in net rating in December, and Howard – despite recently turning 30 – has led the entire team in on-court net rating this month (+14.1 on, -4.9 off). The removal of struggling newcomer Ty Lawson from the starting lineup for established Houston veteran Pat Beverley has also helped the Rockets recapture some of their chemistry from the 2014-15 season, when they finished second in the Western Conference in wins and reached the conference finals.
Harden, of course, still remains the focal point. After all, he’s averaging 28.8 points and 6.8 assists in 38 minutes – numbers that come very close to his Players’ MVP form of 2014-15. As usual, Harden took over with 36 points and seven assists against the Hornets on Monday, including several huge baskets down the stretch when the score was close. But Bickerstaff and the Rockets are still searching for how to optimize the supporting cast around him.
Howard wants to help, yet his average of 8.3 field-goal attempts per game is tied for the lowest of any season in his 12-year career. That led many around the league to speculate if his lack of usage was contributing to any displeasure. But in the current streak, Howard has had a pair of games with double figures in field-goal attempts – showing that his role in Houston’s offense may finally be on the upswing. (In Monday’s game, Howard’s minutes and shots were limited due to extreme foul trouble.)
“Getting some easy buckets early does get me going,” Howard said. “All that stuff really helps me out. “My main focus after the bad game we had in Sacramento [a week ago] was to come back and play free, play with energy. I’m not worried about anything but going out there, having fun and dominating.”
It likely won’t be all smooth sailing from here, though. TeamRankings.com rates the strength of schedule of all 30 teams, and currently the Rockets are dead last in the league. In other words, their early season struggles came against the type of competition that a contender should dominate.
Making matters worse, NBA.com’s strength of schedule index — which rates the remaining schedules of each team based on the home and road winning percentages of the opponents and back-to-back games – lists the Rockets as having the most-difficult remaining schedule in the entire NBA.
Then again, perhaps that’s what Houston needs. After all, they are currently 0-5 against the likely lottery-bound Denver Nuggets and Brooklyn Nets, while going 15-9 against the rest of the league. They responded to a nasty 0-3 start in November by ripping off impressive wins over the Thunder and Clippers, and they followed up last week’s turmoil with their current three-game streak.
The upside is clearly there, but have they found the consistency of focus? Time will tell, but the optimism around these Rockets is certainly growing.
“We’ve just got to continue to stay focused and continue to play through,” Howard said. “We’ve just go out there and play together as a team. When we do that, it’s very hard to beat us.
“It starts with James and myself. We have to continue to get better, continue to communicate and continue to grow our relationship so that the rest of the team can see that and feed off us.”
Ben DuBose is a veteran sports reporter who has followed the Houston Rockets and the NBA since Hakeem Olajuwon was Akeem Olajuwon. He writes for both SheridanHoops and ClutchFans, an independent Rockets blog. You can follow him on Twitter.