NBA takeaways: Stellar Howard keeps Houston alive through 5

Rockets' Dwight Howard gets the crowd going after a defensive stop with less than two minutes to go in Game 5 against Portland.

Bob Levey

There’s something poetic about Dwight Howard having a sensational playoff performance just moments after the Los Angeles Lakers and Mike D’Antoni parted ways. It’s not that either one had an effect on the other, but there’s still something whimsical about them both being freed of their purple and gold baggage on the same night.

Howard was the MVP of Wednesday’s first-round action, finding an urgency in his game rather than "backing down when things get hard," as most Lakers fans would have predicted. It’s good news for everyone, because it means this series gets to show itself off again in Portland. The other two-thirds of Texas played too, as San Antonio got back to its usual way of business. Up in Toronto, the Raptors nearly collapsed but held on and now are one game away from playing the Heat in the second round.

SPURS 109, MAVERICKS 103

Spurs lead 3-2

Takeaway: The Spurs finally played to their winning rhythm. San Antonio performed its basketball waltz, a dance that looks so smooth when done right — controlling the game early, moving the ball succinctly and limiting turnovers. When the Spurs are playing this well, much of the motions seem effortless. But like the waltz done right, it’s for refined teams only. And of course, the Spurs are at their best when Tony Parker takes the lead — even with a sprained ankle. Parker struggled from the field (9 of 23) but he had a team-high 23 points. His five assists were sufficient thanks to the help of his versatile bigs, as Tiago Splitter had five assists and Boris Diaw added six.

Star review: It looks like Vince Carter snuck into the stash of whatever magic powder Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili have been mixing into their drinks. Carter had seven 3-pointers en route to a game-high 28 points and nearly carried the Mavericks again. He shared a bit of that youthful wizardry with Dirk Nowitzki, as the German superstar had 26 points and 15 rebounds.

Looking ahead: Game 6 at Dallas, Friday, 8 p.m. ET

The Mavericks were a Monta Ellis layup away from possibly going up 3-1 against the No. 1-seed Spurs. But just like that, they’re now down 3-2. This is the kind of thing San Antonio does to a team, erasing any memory of how close the series truly was (you can ask last year’s Warriors about that).

RAPTORS 115, NETS 113

Raptors lead 3-2

Takeaway: It was the remarkable story of a Nets comeback that no one in Brooklyn will ever tell. In the playoffs, wins are gold and the rest is eventually forgotten. The Raptors’ story can be told one of two ways: They almost blew it or they withstood a monumental comeback. Either way, the Raptors can now exhale after what very easily could have been labeled as "another loss chalked up to inexperience." But one good bounce here and one made shot there can change an entire narrative. So now, it’s that veteran Brooklyn team that’s left facing elimination.

SHOCKING DECISIONS

Star review: Kyle Lowry was the hero in Game 5, much more indicative of the player he’d been all season long than were the first four games. In his best game of the series, the shoulda-been All-Star scored 36 points, including a late 3-pointer as an answer to the Raptors’ blown lead. Lowry had a bounce to his game, reveling in the momentous home Game 5. Honorable mention goes to Joe Johnson in the loss, who got loose in the second half for 26 of his 30 points.

Looking ahead: Game 6 at Brooklyn, Friday, 7 p.m. ET

The Raptors’ confidence went from full, to broken and now probably sits somewhere in the middle. There’s a strange psychology of a team when it wins a game it nearly let slip away. On one hand, Toronto knows how much it can control a contest when its offense is clicking. On the other side of that, the Raptors also know how quickly things can flip when the Nets confidence grows. What happens back in Brooklyn is a likely combination of the two, and another close game is due.

ROCKETS 108, TRAIL BLAZERS 98

Takeaway: James Harden once again struggled as a scorer, yet he and the Rockets found a way to win. That’s because two other Rockets found redemption in Houston’s Game 5 win: Howard and Jeremy Lin. Howard is proving why he was so worthy of all that free-agent hoopla last offseason and perhaps how good he can be when he’s healthy and playing without a shadow. In the face of losing his fourth consecutive playoffs series, Howard was the best all-around player for Houston with 22 points on 9-of-15 shooting, with 14 boards and three blocks. Lin hasn’t been spectacular, but he was 9 of 15 for 21 points and four assists. The combined effort, and Patrick Beverly’s flu game, was enough to lift Houston despite Harden shooting 5 of 15 (1 of 7 on three-pointers).

Star review: This felt kinda weird. LaMarcus Aldridge, the superhuman scorer with a 35.3-point average in the first four games of the series, was absolutely shut down by Howard. He never got it going, and he shot just 3 of 12 for eight points.

Looking ahead: Game 6 at Portland, Friday, 10:30 p.m. ET

The other piece that felt weird was having a game in this series not come down to a final shot or an overtime. This series was obviously meant to be much closer than five games. But it may not go seven once these Blazers get in front of that raucous Portland crowd. If Houston can force a Game 7, it will need a repeat of Howard on both sides of the ball — plus Harden must find his stroke.

Follow the NBA playoffs with Jimmy Spencer on Twitter @JimmySpencerNBA