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Together again, Smith and Howard light Rockets' fuse

Ex-AAU teammates go dunk crazy in Houston's Game 2 victory

POSTED: Apr 22, 2015 9:45 AM ET

By Fran Blinebury

BY Fran Blinebury

NBA.com

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— There was a time when this was the dream.

Young Dwight Howard giving the wink and the nod and rising up to the rim to catch a perfectly-thrown lob pass from a young Josh Smith and making the backboard shake as he slammed it home.

They were teenagers then, soon to be high school seniors, side-by-side, playing for the Atlanta Celtics, an AAU summer team, and they blasted powerfully up and down the court like a couple of rockets one day bound for greatness.

Rockets on Game 2 Win

Kevin McHale, Josh Smith and Dwight Howard speak to the media after defeating the Mavericks in Game 2.

Now, a dozen years later, they are Rockets, together again in a twisty tale of fate and chance and maybe deliverance that comes with longer odds than some lottery tickets.

There were Howard and Smith scratching off the Dallas Mavericks in a fourth quarter of Game 2 of Houston's first-round series on a Tuesday night that was both a look back at their past and perhaps a glimpse of how far they still can go.

It was a one-point game entering the final period until Howard and Smith turned back the clock.

"Unbelievable," said teammate James Harden. "It brought them back to their AAU days to where they were making passes to each other, lobs, jumping up and down. A lot of excitement in the building. That's a fun feeling."

It was fun that grew into delirium as Smith and Howard hooked up with alley-oop passes that produced five dunks in the space of just eight minutes and blew the game wide open to give Houston a commanding 2-0 lead in the series.

Rockets Get Dunktastic

The Rockets take the Mavs to dunk city in a 111-91 win.

After playing the opener of the series in handcuffs by foul trouble and spending all but 17 minutes on the bench, Howard was ready to cut loose and he did with 28 points and 12 rebounds.

Smith did everything but chew on his headband to stop from exploding about fouls called on him in the first half of Game 2, then played a fourth quarter that was a realization of that potential that's been sitting there all these years, finishing with a near-triple-double of 15 points, nine assists and eight rebounds.

It's not like Smith has done little in his 11-year pro career. In his first nine seasons in Atlanta, he became one of only nine players in league history to have compiled 10,000 points, 5,000 rebounds, 2,000 assists and 1,000 blocked shots with the same NBA team.

Here are some names to consider: Hakeem Olajuwon, David Robinson, Patrick Ewing, Karl Malone, Julius Erving, Tim Duncan, Dirk Nowitzki and Kevin Garnett. The other eight on the list that includes seven MVPs.

But Smith had done little to climb up into the pantheon as season after season finished with the Hawks never able to get past the conference semifinals and, in one way or another, at least one finger was usually pointed at him.

So even after a portfolio that already held 52 games of playoff experience, this is a different situation and a different atmosphere that Smith finds himself in.

It's a season that began with him getting cut by the lowly Pistons back in December, told essentially that he could keep all that was left of the four-year, $54 million free agent contract he signed in 2013, if he would just go away.

Smith was signed by the Rockets on Christmas Eve, a gift that has delivered in both directions. Smith has been a model teammate in Houston, a sixth man asked to come off the bench and make those off-the-chart individual skills fit into a team.

It's big to be able to get an opportunity to play in the postseason. Guys don't understand the importance of playing in the postseason. But having been there, it's kind of an addictive feel.

– Josh Smith

It certainly has helped to be reunited with his old AAU buddy Howard, who is a reclamation project himself, trying to fight off two years of back surgery and knee problems that have made some wonder if he'd be able to get back to his former dominant level.

"It's big to be able to get an opportunity to play in the postseason," Smith said. "Guys don't understand the importance of playing in the postseason. But having been there, it's kind of an addictive feel."

Howard answered the questions in Game 2 by playing 33 minutes that were full of energy and explosiveness.

Smith's response was to act like a virtuoso pianist and make his fingers dance across all the keys. When he wasn't playing pitch and catch with Howard in the fourth quarter, he fed Corey Brewer for a pair of slams and dunked two himself. He also made a sensational hustle play over the end line, saving the ball with one hand and flicking it into the right corner, for Brewer to nail a 3-pointer.

"Josh was finding guys and they were cutting. Guys were moving for him. He and Dwight had some beautiful hook-ups on lob passes and he did a wonderful job of getting into spots and making the next play and breaking down the defense. He had a couple of dunks when they didn't come over...and that was the game right there."

Smith and Howard sat together and exchanged knowing grins at the old memories mixed with the new highlights.

It used to be their dream. Still is, just a little closer.

Fran Blinebury has covered the NBA since 1977. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.

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