Howard's choices, work, led him here

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HOUSTON -- On the eve of his seventh postseason, Dwight Howard stood at the free throw line next to Hakeem Olajuwon.

The rest of the Houston Rockets' roster had already clocked out and hit the showers after Saturday's practice at the Toyota Center. But there was Howard on the floor, wrapping up his post-practice drills on the block with the Rockets legend and two-time champion. Howard, wearing a once-gray-now-charcoal long-sleeve shirt soaked in sweat underneath his practice jersey, launched 15 consecutive free throws and splashed all 15 through the net.

Olajuwon had finally approved. Howard high-fived his mentor and walked off the floor toward a waiting swarm of reporters. Howard's work was done.

Now it begins in earnest.

On Sunday, the Rockets will open the postseason on their home floor for the first time in 17 seasons. Not since the Olajuwon days have the Rockets owned a No. 4 seed or better in the Western Conference. But Howard has helped carry the Rockets back to the upper half of the West playoff field.

"We're ready," Howard said after Saturday's practice. "This is what we've been waiting for all year."

Howard turned down an extra $30 million to be in this position. After spurning the Los Angeles Lakers in free agency, Howard opens the playoffs against the No. 5 seed Portland Trail Blazers, and his plan is coming into focus.

Much of Howard's new chapter is unwritten, but the story arc has followed an upward trajectory this season. He finished the regular season with 18.3 points and 12.2 rebounds on 59.1 percent shooting with an improved 21.3 player efficiency rating, up from his 19.7 PER during a broken season in LakerLand. The Lakers' 2012-13 season ended in a four-game sweep at the hands of the San Antonio Spurs, who outscored Howard's Lakers by a total of 75 points.

"Mentally," Howard said, "I was in a little different place than I am now."

The 28-year-old Howard has become the de facto leader in Houston's youthful locker room. Last season, Rockets GM Daryl Morey boasted that his team ranked as the least-experienced playoff team in NBA history, based on collective minutes played entering the season. Those Rockets were just happy to get invited to the party.

But now, after a 54-win season and the fourth-best record in a towering Western Conference, Howard and the Rockets are thinking bigger. Building on their success against the Blazers -- the Rockets won three of their four regular-season meetings -- is the first step. Howard understands this is only the beginning.

"You have to take out the mindset that it's going to be easy because you beat them in the regular season," Howard said. "This is the playoffs, and every team is playing for one goal: a championship. Each series is different, each matchup is different. But the one thing that stays the same is that playoff mentality."

The leadership position may be Howard's by default. In fact, he has started more playoff games (61) than the rest of the Rockets' roster combined (45). Furthermore, he's the only player on the roster with at least 20 minutes per game that has celebrated a 28th birthday. The question is whether Howard is ready to play mature, grown-up basketball on the big stage over the next two months.

The long training sessions with Olajuwon in the post haven't translated into dramatic improvement on the court. His efficiency on post-up plays remains well below average, scoring just 0.75 points per play, which ranks last among players with at least five post-up plays per game, according to Synergy tracking. His turnover rate on post-up plays (20.9 percent) is almost twice the league norm. Against a Portland team that wants to run, limiting those live-ball turnovers will be essential to the Rockets' success. This will be a tactical and philosophical challenge for Howard.

It's clear through his Olajuwon studies that Howard strives to be a maven in the paint, but it often runs counter to Houston's up-tempo style of play. The Rockets are at their best when James Harden, Patrick Beverley and Chandler Parsons fly up the floor in transition and slalom their way to the rim. Will Howard be content in watching from afar in those cases?

"We got to play up-tempo," Rockets coach Kevin McHale said Saturday. "We have to play before their bigs get down the floor. If the game was 3-on-3 full-court, what would the score be? Two hundred to 200. If we have a chance to play 3-on-3, why wouldn't we play that? I've never understood when they say you can't run in the playoffs. We have to get out and get our pace going."

While Howard may not partake in the fast-break scoring, he can spark it on the defensive end. Howard has begun to look like the two-way superstar of his Orlando Magic tenure. The Rockets are 2.2 points per 100 possessions stingier with Howard on the floor, and that's with a defensive-minded backup in Omer Asik coming off the bench. That improvement widened to 5.0 points every 100 possessions in games against Portland, emphasizing Howard's effectiveness against the Blazers' formidable front line.

To be sure, this is Year 1 of a four-year commitment in Houston. What Howard accomplishes over the next two months won't define his legacy. Far from it. But this is why he turned down the billboards and glamour of Los Angeles. For Howard, this is the redemption tour. Sunday is Day 1.

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