OAKLAND (AP) — James Harden and the Houston Rockets spent half the season finding ways to win without Dwight Howard and another chunk of the schedule with the center limited because of an injury.
Now they might have to do it again to save their season.
Howard is unsure whether he can play against the Golden State Warriors in Game 2 of the Western Conference finals Thursday night because of a sprained left knee, leaving the already short-handed Rockets searching for answers to replace him. The Warriors won Game 1 on Wednesday night.
“We’ve been through it this year,” Harden said. “Those guys are ready to come in and contribute. Hopefully, big fella can get his body healthy and can go out there and help us.”
Howard sat out practice Wednesday at Oracle Arena after an MRI confirmed the injury. He said his knee, which was injured in a collision with teammate Josh Smith in the first quarter of Game 1, was still in pain.
The team officially listed Howard as questionable on its medical report. But Howard, who missed 41 games this season mostly due to a right knee injury, said he’ll listen to his body before deciding when to return.
“It’s a long series. We’re not going to lose our minds because we lost in the first game,” Howard said.
Even when Howard played, Houston had a hard time containing Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and the undersized lineups the Warriors threw on the floor. Golden State rallied from 16 points down in the second quarter behind a lineup full of shooters and held off Harden and the Rockets 110-106.
Warriors coach Steve Kerr put 6-foot-7 Draymond Green — the runner-up for NBA Defensive Player of the Year — on Howard and often played Harrison Barnes, Shaun Livingston, Curry and Thompson with him. Kerr went to the small-ball lineup again to help Golden State pull away in the fourth quarter after Howard departed for good.
Until the Rockets find a way to stop the strategy, count on the Warriors doing more of the same.
“It’s always fun guarding those bigger guys. It’s a challenge and I enjoy challenges,” Green said. “On the offensive end, when you try to keep your big in against our small lineup, it’s rough.”
Here are some other things to watch in Game 2:
REPLACING HOWARD: If Howard can’t play, the Rockets could turn to rookie Clint Capela as their starting center. The Swiss-born Capela, who also played in the NBA Development League this season, had nine points on 4-of-4 shooting and four rebounds in 13 minutes in Game 1.
THREE BALL: Both teams rely heavily on 3-point shooting, though neither shot particularly well in the series opener. The difference? Golden State got off more shots. Houston was 8 for 22 from beyond the arc, while the Warriors were 10 for 29. Curry led the way with a 6-for-11 performance from deep to finish with 34 points.
BENCH PRODUCTION: Depth could be an issue for the Rockets, who are already without point guard Patrick Beverley (left wrist injury) and starting forward Donatas Motiejunas (back) for the season. More scoring off the bench would certainly ease the burden on Harden and the starters. Corey Brewer (9 points), Terrence Jones (5 points) and Pablo Prigioni (4 points), who played pivotal roles in Houston’s victory over the Clippers in the second round, had mostly quiet Game 1 showings. The Warriors got a huge lift from Livingston (18 points).
CORRALLING CURRY: The only person who might’ve contained Curry in the opener was his 2-year-old daughter, Riley, who stole the spotlight from the NBA MVP during his postgame news conference. Jason Terry and Harden struggled to chase Curry, who got wide open quite a few times, including twice under the rim for easy layups in the fourth. The Rockets will need to do something to slow down Curry — perhaps putting forward Trevor Ariza on him more — or they could be in trouble.
SHOOTING SMITH: The Warriors seemed content to let Josh Smith shoot 3s and mid-range jumpers in the opener. The Rockets power forward was 6 for 16 from the floor, including 2 for 6 from 3-point range. Rockets coach Kevin McHale said he’d like to see his team produce more points in the paint, where Houston outscored the Warriors 52 to 50. Getting Smith to attack Golden State’s undersized forwards might be a good start.