OAKLAND, Calif.—A night of treatment produced no major progress for Dwight Howard.
The eight-time All-Star center suffered a left knee sprain during Houston 110–106 Game 1 loss to Golden State on Tuesday, and his status for Game 2 on Thursday remains up in the air. Officially, Howard is listed as questionable and he said he would "have to sit" if his knee doesn't show improvement.
"I felt the same [this morning] as last night," Howard said Wednesday following a Rockets practice that he didn't participate in. "It was very sore. This is another test that I think I'll be able to overcome."
Howard scored seven points and grabbed 13 rebounds in 26 minutes in Game 1, but his night took a hard turn midway through the first quarter when Josh Smith crashed into Howard's leg after attempting a wild shot in the post. After attempting to play through the injury, Howard eventually sat out the game's final 11 minutes as Golden State claimed the come-from-behind victory.
"It was very painful to play last night," Howard said. "Coach [Kevin McHale] just felt like it was best that I sit out the rest of the game. I tried to play on it, but there was really nothing I could do. ... [Game 2] will be on how I feel. If I feel like I can tolerate and go out there and play through it, then I will. But my career is the most important thing. I will do everything I can to help this team, but I can't help the team if I'm hurt."
McHale deferred all questions about Howard's health and availability, and the ensuing rotation implications, until Thursday. "We'll find out tomorrow," McHale said. "His knee is bothering him. [If he can't go], we'll play other people. We won't play four on five, I promise you. We'll deal with that tomorrow. I'm not going to speculate."
There really aren't that many options available to McHale, who is without center Donatas Motiejunas and guard Patrick Beverley due to injuries. In Game 1, McHale played rookie center Clint Capela for 13 minutes and used forward Josh Smith at center in a smaller look. If Howard is sidelined, McHale is essentially left with just three big men: Smith, Capela and Terrence Jones, as reserve center Joey Dorsey has played only 13 minutes during the 2015 playoffs.
The 21-year-old Capela was a pleasant surprise in Game 1, finishing with nine points, four rebounds and a block in 13 minutes. Capela, a slender 6'10" Swiss center who spent most of the season in the D-League, could wind up being McHale's best matchup when Golden State plays big with traditional center Andrew Bogut. "Clint is not going to turn into Dwight Howard overnight," McHale admitted. "He would have to hit the weight room. ... Clint has been playing well. He's an easy guy to coach and he's an easy guy to gain confidence in, because he's just so diligent."
There was no apparent trepidation from Capela on Tuesday, despite the Western Conference finals pressure, a loud Oracle Arena crowd, and an opponent that is heavily favored to win the title. He made all four of his shots, didn't commit a turnover, and moved well defensively. "Young fella has done a great job," James Harden said Wednesday. "When his name is called, he's seized those moments. He goes out there and sets screens, rebounds the basketball and finishes. When he switched out on [Stephen Curry defensively], he did a good job."
Capela is Howard's logical replacement in the starting lineup, if necessary, a fact that surely seemed impossible as recently as late March, when he was still logging minutes for the Rio Grande Valley Vipers. "It's the same sport, it's just basketball, and we're all human," Capela said. It's the same sport. ... It's no big deal. I'm just trying to focus on what I need to do on the floor. Everything is going OK."
Exactly how large a role Capela will play in Game 2 will likely be determined in part by how quickly the Warriors go to their smaller lineup. Golden State enjoyed a 21-4 second-quarter run and an 11-0 fourth-quarter run while using forward Draymond Green at center, and Smith is a more logical matchup for the ultra-versatile Green. The Warriors' spread look improved their flow in the second quarter after a somewhat slow start, and it created multiple easy baskets late in the game when Houston lapses left the basket area unattended.
If Howard is sidelined and Warriors coach Steve Kerr continues to use Bogut sparingly in favor of smaller lineups, the pressure will be on Smith to play huge minutes, protect the basket area, and lead Houston's rebounding efforts. That's no easy ask when Green comfortably floats out to the three-point line and can stretch a defense with his outside shooting.
"We're not in panic mode because we've been here before," Smith said, referring to Howard's absence with a right knee injury and Houston's other health issues during the regular season. "I have to try to step in and fill that void. ... I've just been trying to fly around, be versatile, and try to dominate as much as possible in the paint. Make it so they can see a presence down low that can contest shots, so they're more reluctant to come in there, instead of a team that lets people walk down the lane and get easy opportunities at the rim."
[daily_cut.NBA]The Warriors' offense has counters upon counters, and it's unclear whether Houston's defensive personnel, without Howard, will be able to hold down the fort. That said, the Rockets enjoyed significant offensive success of their own in Game 1, thanks to a strong overall night from Harden, an excellent shooting night from Trevor Ariza, and piecemeal contributions from the rest of the rotation. Despite Howard's absence late, the Rockets had the game tied as late as midway through the fourth quarter, and an Ariza three-pointer cut the Warriors' lead to two points in the game's final minute.
"They went on two runs," Harden said. "Other than those two things, I think we outplayed them that whole entire game. We had a lot of opportunities that we missed. ... We've got to pick up the slack as a team: control the paint, protecting the paint, finishing in the paint. All the things Dwight brings to the table, we have to do a great job as a team picking those up. ... We're a really good team. We match up really well with them. We can run too."
Indeed, fighting fire with fire on Thursday seems to be Houston's mentality, whether or not Howard is limited. If forced to make due without Howard, McHale can craft a combination of defensive versatility, athleticism and spacing by playing a small lineup of Jason Terry, Harden, Ariza, Corey Brewer, and Smith. Or, he can remove Terry and add Jones to that group, thereby maximizing his team's interchangeability. Either way, Harden will be called on to handle the heavy lifting on offense, something he did throughout Howard's regular-season absences.
Whether frustrated with the bum injury luck or still annoyed at losing Game 1 after leading by 16 points, McHale was a little short when pressed on the idea that Houston's chances in the series are reliant upon the ability to play big with Howard. "If [the Warriors] go super small, there's holes in that lineup, believe me," McHale said. "We've just got to exploit them."