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Rockets’ Dwight Howard returns to All-Star form

Dwight Howard is with a more talented team and his back and shoulder are completely healthy.

David J. Phillip/Associated Press

Dwight Howard is with a more talented team and his back and shoulder are completely healthy.

If there was concern that Dwight Howard was too lighthearted during his one year playing in Los Angeles, just imagine his glee after signing a maximum contract with the Houston Rockets during the offseason.

He is with a more talented team and his back and shoulder are completely healthy.

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Howard was at his dominant best last Monday against the Celtics, scoring 32 points to go with 11 rebounds and withstanding the Hack-a-Dwight strategy employed by Celtics coach Brad Stevens, canning 10 of 18 free throws. Howard looks as if his decision to leave the drama-filled Lakers for Houston was for peace of mind.

It was a difficult season in Los Angeles for Howard, who was expected to team with Kobe Bryant and SteveNash for a title run. Instead, it was a tumultuous campaign in which each of the three dealt with injuries and Bryant accused Howard of being too playful and lacking toughness.

Howard’s escape from Los Angeles was the right move because the Rockets are younger, more talented, and less offensive production is expected from him because Houston possesses so many scorers.

Howard is averaging 17.9 points this season, 5 points fewer than his career best with Orlando four years ago, but his defensive presence, dominance around the basket, and ability to run the floor have made Houston a potential title contender.

That’s if the Rockets can stay healthy and play with cohesion defensively. James Harden isn’t exactly a shutdown defender and neither is Jeremy Lin, and the Western Conference features plenty of scoring tandems.

So, how Houston fares in the postseason will depend on how quickly it meshes during the second half of the season.

“The defense, most of that stuff will come with time,” said Howard. “Learning the rotations, cracking back for the bigs, the bigs being up on the pick-and-rolls, and calling screens out [which would make it] better for the guards. All of that stuff takes time because we might see something develop behind the guards that the guards don’t pay attention to.

“ Also with the guards, hearing our voice, understanding where we’re going to be on the floor. That’s what we’re trying to accomplish right now, mainly on the defensive end. The offense? We’ll get there.”

Howard has never been overly concerned with his numbers but his agility and enthusiasm this season don’t compare to his stint with the Lakers. He is smiling more. He is a force in the paint. Howard’s passion and prowess is reminiscent of his Orlando days, which is encouraging in a league devoid of dominant centers.

“I’m just trying to help this team win in any way possible,” said Howard, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2004 draft. “I’ve been in the league for a while. So I’m trying to preach to these guys what it’s going to take for us to be a great team and how it takes steps to get there. It just doesn’t happen because you put guys together, but I think we’re taking the right steps to be a great team.”

Howard turned 28 in December and is a seasoned veteran on a team of upstarts. He is Houston’s second-oldest player behind 33-year-old Francisco Garcia, meaning he has to serve as a guide and voice of reason, unlike his previous stops, where leadership was an issue.

“I’ve learned a lot in the 10 years I’ve been in the NBA,” Howard said. “Especially how to help teams win and lead teams. It’s not about how many points you score, the thing that I try to tell these guys the most is it’s going to take all of us to win. It doesn’t matter who gets the glory at the end of the day, you have to learn how to fight through adversity.

“We’ve been hit some with guys being injured and you have to learn how to play through all that and understand that it takes all the guys in the locker room and the coaching staff to get the championship.

“We can’t worry about anybody on the outside. We can’t allow outside things to affect us. We have to take care of business on the floor and believe and trust in each other.”

The Rockets are still maddeningly inconsistent, as evidenced by their record-setting 19-point performance in the second half after scoring 73 in the first half of their 104-92 loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder on Thursday. Howard acknowledges the Rockets are going to have to win with defense and grind out games when Harden’s floater isn’t floating or Chandler Parsons isn’t draining 3-pointers.

“We have a fairly young team — even though I’m not old per se — but we’ve got a lot of guys who it’s their second or third year in the league,” Howard said. “When that happens, everybody’s always in your ear, telling you how good you are, what this guy’s not doing, that guy. I just try to tell the guys, we have to stay together, we’ve got to stay humble, and any situation that we have on the floor, we’ve got to be able to handle it ourselves.

“We can’t look for nobody else. For the most part, the guys have been receptive. They’ve seen a lot of the things that I’ve been through as a player on and off the court and they know I’m not going to tell them anything bad. I’m going to do whatever I can to help this team and that’s why I’m here.”

Shouldering INJURY CONCERN

Paul’s rehabilitation gets closely monitored

Chris Paul could miss another month with a separated right shoulder, and as the Clippers go on without him, there may be questions as to whether his injury could be chronic. Celtics guard AveryBradley played a couple of years with two bad shoulders before requiring surgery because they popped out of socket without resistance.

Paul has been a sturdy player throughout his career but does smack into bigger players often on pick-and-rolls. Orthopedic surgeon Bradford Parsons, a shoulder specialist at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, talked about the severity of shoulder injuries and their long-term effects. Paul was diagnosed with a Grade 3 AC joint separation and did not require surgery.

“When the severity goes up and the damage is higher, you can injure more ligaments and now the collarbone sticks up more and the grades go up to 3, 4, or 5,” Parsons said. “A basketball player, if they get hit from above and can disrupt that AC joint, once it’s separated, if it’s a less-severe injury you’ll let the patient heal and scar their injured area a little bit and you might have a little bump, but it’s not really any more susceptible to injury.

“His return to play will be determined by seeing how the pain is, to see how the flexibility is coming back, to see what the strength is doing in the shoulder muscles. That six-week time is a ballpark and it’s a reasonable estimate to return back to court at that level just like [Green Bay Packers quarterback] Aaron Rodgers did.”

Rodgers fractured his collarbone and missed seven weeks. Bradley, on the other hand, required surgery because shoulder dislocations are more severe, according to Parsons.

“What that means is the ball of the shoulder in the major joint, the ball comes out of the socket,” he said. “Dwyane Wade separated his shoulder and that required a doctor to pop it back in, and those injuries, when you dislocate your shoulder, have a higher likelihood of the shoulder continuing to dislocate or pop out.”

Parsons said AC joint injuries can be “a temporary thing and can be healed either with or without surgery and [athletes] can usually get back to their previous level.”

ETC.

Raptors have emerged as playoff contender

The Toronto Raptors are in first place in the Atlantic Division, winning 13 of 18 games since the Rudy Gay trade and becoming a legitimate playoff contender. Their leader is a stocky point guard who has bounced around a bit, but Kyle Lowry has also become one of the league’s more intriguing players because he is peaking months before hitting free agency.

“I knew I would have to be more of a threat offensively,” Lowry said about his role after the Gay trade. “I knew I would have to ball out a lot more. But at the end of the day, I have great teammates and great coaches and great confidence in myself and them to get the job done.”

The Raptors have not placed Lowry on the trade block, although he apparently was going to be shuttled out of Ontario soon after Gay. But Lowry has remained and helped the Raptors’ resurgence under coach Dwane Casey. Other than a listless performance against the Celtics last Wednesday, the Raptors have played better than they have in recent seasons.

“We just have the confidence in ourselves,” Lowry said. “Everyone is out here approaching it like a business. We’re prepared mentally and physically. Once we have our game plans, we’re locking into the game plans and executing the game plans. I would think that every single night on every single team in the NBA. But for sure, for us. Not just challenging, we want to win every single night as I’m sure every other team in the league does also.”

It’s a fluid situation in Toronto. General manager Masai Ujiri took over a few months ago and moved Gay as his first step to overhaul the roster. Lowry and DeMar DeRozan were expected to follow. Lowry has responded by averaging career highs in points, assists, and 3-point shooting percentage, all the while with trade rumors hovering given Toronto’s fondness for Canadian product Andrew Wiggins, who will certainly be one of the top five picks in the June draft.

“It’s a business. If something would have happened, it would have happened. It hasn’t happened yet,” said Lowry, who left Villanova following his sophomore season in 2006. “We’re still a couple weeks away [from the trade deadline], but I’m still focused on doing my job for the Toronto Raptors.”

Lowry has worked his way into becoming one of the league’s more underrated and productive point guards. He is hardly a household name, but inside NBA circles he could become an attractive trade piece in the next four weeks and be in line for a lucrative free agent contract this summer.

“This is the NBA. Anybody can be traded at any moment,” said Lowry. “You have to take it and say, ‘Hey, we get paid really well to do a job.’ You can’t worry about the things that happen; be prepared to do your job no matter where it is.

“I just want to win. It doesn’t matter. I’m still a Raptor. At the end of the day, my camaraderie with my teammates here . . . All we want to do is win. I don’t care about anything else.”

Ujiri may not have to totally overhaul the roster because previous GM Bryan Colangelo left him with immense talent. Swingman Terrence Ross is a potential star but is inexperienced, while Lithuanian center Jonas Valanciunas is improving as a post scorer and rebounder.

“Those guys have been unbelievable,” said Lowry. “I’ve seen [Valanciunas] go from making really bad mistakes to now his mistakes aren’t bad. They’re good mistakes. And [Ross] is unbelievable, the way he’s been shooting. What’s more impressive to me is his defense. It’s been unbelievable. He’s going out there every single night and is doing a good job.”

And what Ujiri did by dealing Gay is vastly improve the Raptors’ bench with Greivis Vasquez, Patrick Patterson, John Salmons, and Chuck Hayes.

“You’ve got those four guys coming in on that second unit. John’s playing great. Pat’s unbelievable right now. Chuck’s getting back to being a defensive guy. Greivis is leading that group, getting assists and having guys in the right spot,” Lowry said. “It’s important for everybody on that unit to keep it up. It’s not just me; it’s the whole team. Once the trade went down, everybody accepted each other and everyone said, ‘Look, this is how we’re going to win and this is what we want to do.’ Everyone stepped in and it just fell into place.”

The remaining road is long and uncertain. The Raptors haven’t reached the playoffs in six years, but with a weakened Eastern Conference their chances are strong.

“We’re only two games over .500. We’re not Miami. We’re not Indiana. We haven’t been to the playoffs,” Lowry said. “We’re not the team that has been to the playoffs, we’re a team that’s trying to get to the playoffs. That keeps us humble. That keeps us focused on our goals. We’re in the third spot in the East right now. We’re winning games. We’re approaching it. We just want to keep something that we have going right now.”

Layups

A player taking advantage of his second chance is former Chicago Bulls first-round pick JamesJohnson, who is playing a key bench role with the Memphis Grizzlies. Johnson, signed from the NBADL, has finally worked himself into premium shape and can play both forward positions. He is leading the Grizzlies in blocked shots per game in his brief stint. Meanwhile, Memphis welcomed back Marc Gasol from a two-month injury stint (torn knee cartilage) and appears primed for a second-half run . . . The Texas Legends of the NBADL claimed ex-North Carolina swingman P.J. Hairston and he will have a chance to impress NBA clubs with a D-League stint before the June draft. Hairston was dismissed from the Tar Heels for off-court transgressions but like Washington Wizards first-round pick GlenRice Jr., who was dismissed from Georgia Tech before entering the NBA, he will have a chance to rebuild his reputation . . . The Clippers took a chance on guard Hedo Turkoglu, who signed a free agent deal last week after being waived by the Orlando Magic following sitting last season. The Clippers hope Turkoglu has more success than Stephen Jackson, who was a model citizen but was out of shape and unproductive after months of inactivity. Clippers coach Doc Rivers has had more of a voice in personnel decisions than he had in Boston and signing Jackson was primarily his call . . . The trade market for Knicks guard J.R. Smith is nonexistent because of his history and the additional two years on his contract. The Knicks’ best hope if they want to move the mercurial shooter is taking back another team’s undesirable contract, but those types of deals are tougher to find because teams are exhibiting less patience with deals that don’t pan out. The Celtics were nearly ready to trade Courtney Lee just months after he signed a four-year deal, and finally moved him to Memphis this month for Jerryd Bayless. This stretch with Rajon Rondo will be very important for the future of Bayless, who is a free agent this summer and would like to secure a long-term contract as a backup combo guard. With Avery Bradley emerging as a starter at shooting guard, the Celtics desperately need scoring off the bench with Lee and JordanCrawford gone. The Celtics own Bayless’s Bird Rights, meaning they are not salary cap restricted when negotiating a new contract. Bayless is earning $3.1 million in the final year of the deal he signed with Memphis.

Gary Washburn can be reached at gwashburn@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GwashburnGlobe. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.

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