Since 1997, when Hakeem Olajuwon, Clyde Drexler and Charles Barkley all wore a Houston uniform, the Rockets have been to the NBA playoffs nine times — and lost in the first round all but once.
If you noticed a desperate vibe, therefore, coming from the home team and its anxious crowd Saturday night, the 18-year void might have been the reason.
But Dwight Howard claimed that last year’s sudden playoff exit wasn’t a part of Saturday’s pregame discussion.
“We weren’t inspired for that reason,” Howard told the media Sunday. “We had to let that go.”
A minute later, however, Howard related how the veterans on the team had gathered the Rockets’ young players and made a point about the recent past.
“We just had to tell them how important the first game is,” Howard said.
First games can be vitally important. History tells us that the team that wins Game 1 of an NBA best-of-seven series goes on to advance to the second round 76.9 percent of the time.
Houston’s 118-108 victory over the Dallas Mavericks in Game 1 was a hump cleared, therefore, for the home team. But it won’t be the first time that the Mavericks have tried to buck those odds.
“Game 1 is over with,” said Howard. “We can’t get too high because we won that game. We can’t allow that to distract us.
“Teams sometimes win Game 1 and feel they’ve already got the series won. But they’re a well-coached team. We’re going to have to be prepared.”
It would have been hard for coach Rick Carlisle’s Mavericks to prepare for the all-around assault they encountered Saturday night. Corey Brewer, Josh Smith and Clint Capela came off the Houston bench to combine for 34 points.
And even with Howard sitting most of the night with foul trouble and the Mavericks doing a capable job of flanking James Harden at the hips, Howard still dominated the game during his 17 minutes and Harden still had 11 rebounds and went to the free-throw line 17 times.
“If you’re putting two on the ball, everybody else is going to have to make plays,” Houston coach Kevin McHale said Sunday. “Three can’t guard four. I’ve said it a million times — if three could guard four, you’d just leave two guys down at the offensive end and the score would be 350 to 349.”
McHale’s message, if not his theorem, is right. There were too many Rockets contributing Saturday that the Mavericks just weren’t in position to match.
Ex-Maverick Jason Terry was one of them, finishing with 16 points.
“Obviously, it’s their strategy — good luck with that,” Terry said of the elbow room he saw against the Dallas defense. “But they’ve got their hands full with Dwight, James and Trevor [Ariza]. That’s why I get lost in the shuffle.
“Dwight and James, no doubt, are our two big dogs. But it’s the players around them that allow them to be great.”
The Mavericks have their own big dogs. But Dirk Nowitzki, despite his 24 points, took only 14 shots. And the ones who tried to pick up the scoring slack — Chandler Parsons, Amar’e Stoudemire and Monta Ellis — shot a combined 12-for-43 from the floor.
“We know we can’t afford to slow down in this next game,” Terry said. “That team can score in bunches.”
A year ago, again blessed with home-court advantage in the first round, a 54-win Houston team dropped both games to start its opening series. Hence, Saturday’s urgent beginning.
From here on, the odds are with the big dogs.
Gil LeBreton, 817-390-7697