As the Rockets prepare for game two of the western conference finals, the only thing that is certain is the Dwight Howard that took the floor to start the series will not be available for Thursday night’s game. That’s not to definitively rule him out of the contest after he suffered a left knee sprain in the first quarter of game one, but it was clear watching him try to labor through the pain in several short stints that followed, he will not be the same player, if he plays, this soon after the injury. On Wednesday’s day between games, Howard said the knee felt no better.
“The same. The same,” Howard said, when asked about how his knee felt the day after he suffered the injury. “You know, it was very sore. It was throbbing during the game. But just another test that I think I’ll be able to overcome.”
At Thursday’s gameday shootaround, Howard was wearing a brace on his left knee and coach Kevin McHale said he was trying to get comfortable with it, calling him a game-time decision.
Howard, who would certainly be limited if he should try to play through the injury, missed 41 games, mainly due to a right knee injury during the regular season. While it’s accurate to say they’ve successfully dealt with him being out or limited during the season previously, their means to cope with the absence are quite different.
When Howard missed his 41 regular season games, the Rockets turned to the same player 38 times to fill his void. Donatas Motiejunas, who finished eighth in most improved player voting this season, averaged just over 30 minutes a game in those games he played without Howard. He averaged 13.5 points and 6.3 rebounds, while shooting 51.1 percent from the floor, while he took on the role of top low-post option and presence. But with the back injury and subsequent surgery he had late in the season, he is not available to fill-in this time.
Enter Clint Capela. The 21-year old rookie, played in just 12 regular season games for the Rockets, while spending the bulk of the season with the Rockets d-league franchise in the Rio Grande Valley. But he’s played in all 13 of the Rockets postseason games as Howard’s primary backup at center. He’s shooting 67 percent from the floor in the playoffs and has made his last ten shots. His per 36 minute averages are excellent at 18 points, 12.8 rebounds and 2.8 blocks per 36 minutes. Among players with at least 100 minutes played this postseason, his rebounding ranks third, behind only teammate Howard (15.0) and the Clippers DeAndre Jordan (14.0). Similarly his blocked shot numbers would place him second behind only the Cavaliers Timofey Mozgov (2.9).
While he has thrived since joining the rotation, he’s only played roughly eight minutes per game. Potentially he could be leaned on a whole lot more. “When you have different players, you have different strengths on the floor,” McHale said about dealing with injuries and different lineups. “So when you have different strengths on the floor, you’ve got to play to different things. But 90 percent of it is‑‑ Clint (Capela) is not going to turn into Dwight Howard overnight. He might, but I don’t know. He’s got to hit the weight room.”
After some laughter, he continued, “You know, those are really impossible questions to answer because different players bring different things, like we’re a different team every time we make a substitution. Your team changes a little bit. We’ve just got to go out there and play.”
Capela played one minute and 12 seconds in the regular season against the Warriors, missing his only shot in a Rockets 12-point loss back in November. In Tuesday’s game one, Capela was very effective, making all four his shots, grabbing four rebounds and scoring nine points in just under 13 minutes.
“They’re a different ballclub, for sure,” Warriors forward Draymond Green said. “Capela has been playing really well, and I’m sure he’ll probably fill in at the 5 for him. You see the growth of him over the course of the season.
You know, we’re going to prepare as if Dwight is playing, and if not, we’ll adjust the game plan a little bit.”
Terrence Jones had his own injuries during the season and also was not available for many of the games Howard missed during the regular season. Jones first 21 games back after his nerve injurywere all played without Howard and Jones averaged 12.1 points, 7.2 rebounds and 1.6 blocks per game during that strethc. He has not been nearly as consistent or productive in the playoffs, as he’s come off the bench in the last four games. He missed eight of his ten shots in game one.