Howard reaches next level in playoffs to lead Rockets

HOUSTON (AP) With the Houston Rockets down by 2 early in the fourth quarter of their second playoff game with Dallas, Dwight Howard grabbed a lob from Josh Smith and finished with a thunderous dunk.

A minute later, Smith was dishing to him at the rim for a second slam.

Then the pair did it again and again and yet again - five times in the quarter - as the second-seeded Rockets pulled away for the win to take a 2-0 lead in the Western Conference series.

The message from that performance was clear: Playoff Dwight has arrived.

''It's playoff basketball,'' Howard said. ''I think for guys that have been around for a while they tend to play a little bit different in the playoffs than they do in the regular season. It's a new season for myself and I get a chance to start fresh.''

It's not simply the arrival of the playoffs that has motivated the star center to step things up. He wants to make up for lost time after injuries kept him out of half of Houston's games this season, the most time he's missed in his 11-year career.

Howard sat out 11 games early this season before being shut down for almost two months starting in January with swelling in his right knee. He returned for nine games late in the regular season, but never really seemed like himself with his minutes restricted.

''I'm just happy to be playing basketball,'' Howard said. ''Sitting out for a long time, you miss the game, you miss being out there. I just missed playing.''

That's been clear in Houston's first two postseason games where he's combined for 39 points, 17 rebounds and seven blocks. His minutes were limited in Game 1 after getting into early foul trouble, but he played more than 33 minutes on Tuesday night. Coach Kevin McHale hopes Howard can play about that much - or maybe a bit more - in Houston's upcoming games, starting Friday night in Dallas.

Howard said Wednesday that he feels good after playing his most minutes since January 19. It's a good sign, especially considering the physical matchup he has with Mavericks center Tyson Chandler in this series.

Howard smirked when asked if he's enjoying that matchup, a day after Chandler received a technical foul for pushing him to the court. It was an incident that ended with the pair jawing at each other and being separated by teammates.

''It's not a one-on-one matchup,'' Howard said. ''I know his job is to get me frustrated and get me into a fight and a wrestling match with him and that way I'm not focused on what I need to do for my team. I have to stay in that zone.''

One of Howard's most memorable defensive plays in this series came when his block sent a hook shot by Chandler several rows into the stands in Game 1. Howard takes pride in controlling the paint and believes his teammates feed off of his work down low.

''If I'm able to block shots and contest and make people take tough shots I think it makes our team more confident,'' Howard said. ''(And) it also stops the other team from wanting to come in the paint.''

McHale's been waiting for most of the season to get Howard back to pair with leading scorer James Harden. He's so excited to have the pair for the playoffs that the Hall of Fame player turned often grumpy coach cracked a small smile when asked what a healthy Howard means to his team.

''It's huge for us,'' McHale said. ''His ability to protect the rim, rebound, his strength. You make mistakes they're dunks.''

While Howard's dunks and blocks in these two games could fill a highlight reel, they're far from his only contributions. Teammates raved about the work he does on defense that doesn't show up under his name on the box score.

''(There's) the shots that he deterred,'' point guard Jason Terry said. ''They're coming in there throwing up these high-arching, rainbow shots ... that's not a high-percentage shot. It's not something that you work on, so he's doing his job whether it shows up in the block category or not.''

His presence in that area can be seen in the Mavericks statistics though, where big men Chandler and Dirk Nowitzki combined to make just 5 of 20 shots in Game 2.

''You've got a guy that's a massive difference-maker at the rim at both ends of the floor,'' Dallas coach Rick Carlisle said. ''We know his game, we know his greatness. Two summers ago, backed up the truck and tried to get him here.''

Instead Howard chose to join Harden in Houston and try to lead the Rockets to their first championship since back-to-back titles in 1994-95. After being ousted in the first round by Portland last season, Howard's even more intent on that goal.

''We're playing for something much ... bigger than the first round,'' he said. ''We're trying to win the title.''

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AP Sports Writer Schuyler Dixon contributed to this report.

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