James Harden is making a case for league MVP, but a healthy Dwight Howard is key to Houston’s title hopes
The Houston Rockets (43-20) currently sit third in the competitive Western Conference standings despite the absence of former All-Star center Dwight Howard for over half of the season. The reason the Rockets have been able to remain relevant in the league’s hierarchy this season is quite simple.
The dominant play of All-Star shooting guard James Harden.
Harden is in the midst of an individual campaign which has thrust the former Arizona State University standout prominently into the league’s Most Valuable Player discussion. Harden is averaging an eye popping 27.1 points, 5.8 rebounds and 7.1 assists on 45 percent shooting from the floor. The sixth year veteran has recorded 27 games with at least 30 points, six of which were 40-point explosions, while only being held in single digits once. Harden, criticized in the past for his defensive inattentiveness, has also made improvements on that side of the floor this season.
However, as strong as Harden’s play has been up until this point, the Rockets’ title hopes could ultimately be decided on whether their other marquee player is ready for the stretch run.
Howard last saw action on January 23 when he left a game versus the Phoenix Suns with a sprained right ankle. The center later reported swelling in his right knee and subsequently received a bone marrow aspirate injection.
The initial timeline for Howard’s return to action was six-to-eight weeks and the center is seemingly on pace with the original timeline.
“Every workout has been super tough,” Howard said according to Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle. “They have been trying to push me to the extreme so that I will be better than being in game shape. I will be in better shape than that. They are trying to test my limits to see how far I can go each day.
“I won’t let anything hold me back. I’ve been injured before. I’ve had worse injuries than this. I’m going to continue to work hard. I just look forward to getting back on the floor to dominate.”
The three-time Defensive Player of the Year is averaging 16.3 points, 11 rebounds and 1.4 blocks per game in 32 contests on the season but also looks far removed from the dominant player who once led the Orlando Magic to the Finals in 2009.
Howard believes he will return to action with much more fluidity after undergoing the procedure and completing a rigorous rehabilitation process.
“I’m a little bit more explosive right now,” Howard said. “They’ve been working on my conditioning a lot, too. All season long I’ve been battling back from an injury. It was tough for me to stay in shape and also play at a high level.
“This time, I think they took the necessary steps to make sure I won’t re-injure my leg. They’ve been working on my full body — back, legs, whatever may cause any weaknesses in my body.”
The Rockets’ next three games are on the road versus Portland, Utah and Los Angeles (Clippers). The Blazers and Clippers are currently fourth and fifth in the Western Conference standings respectively.
Sixers head coach Brett Brown addresses Joel Embiid’s latest injury setback
The Philadelphia 76ers are once again heading to the draft lottery. The team is in the midst of a rebuilding project centered on collecting assets and founded in patience.
The team selected center Joel Embiid with the third overall pick of the 2014 draft and expected the former Kansas standout to miss the entire campaign with a stress fracture in his foot.
However, Embiid had been making significant progress in his rehabilitation before reporting “soreness” in his right foot leading into a doctor’s evaluation in Los Angeles earlier this week. The team maintains the evaluation was long scheduled and Sixers coach Brett Brown says people are overreacting in the moment.
“People shouldn’t overreact,” Brown said according to Keith Pompey of the Philadelphia Inquirer. “I get why we all can. But it’s not a situation all the people need to overreact to.”
At the surface of the latest news is video of Embiid completing a between the legs dunk during pregame warm-ups last Friday. Embiid then missed his pregame drills on Saturday and was unable to do his routine on Monday post team practice.
Brown doesn’t believe you can properly connect the dots between Embiid’s latest setback and the dunk in question.
“I think when you speak to doctors and people that do this all the time and give assessments, they say it’s quite normal,” Brown said. “It’s part of the history. It’s part of the recovery of an injury that you will experience some soreness from time to time.
“I think when you see him doing a dunk and when people see him in a boot, you connect the dots, and it’s fair. Nobody’s trying to be clandestine. It’s very transparent.”
The Sixers (14-49) own the second worst record in the league this season, with a two game lead over the New York Knicks.
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