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Rockets stop Spurs as Howard nets 32

HOUSTON — Heading into a game with the San Antonio Spurs, Houston Rockets coach Kevin McHale had his eye on a few matchups. A specific one that caught his eye was getting Dwight Howard in the post. The plan worked.

With San Antonio missing big bodies Tim Duncan, who was rested along with fellow veteran Manu Ginobili, and Tiago Splitter (right calf tightness), Howard dominated the interior from the opening tip, scoring 32 points and grabbing 16 rebounds in leading Houston to a 98-81 victory.

"We looked at some stuff (on tape) and we got him in the post," McHale said. "I thought (Howard) rolled hard and got some late at the rim. He was really devastating on those high passes. It's important that he gets in a rhythm and plays. It doesn't matter who is out there playing for them, he's got to play well for us."

The win runs Houston's record to a league best 6-0 while dropping San Antonio's mark to 2-2.

With no Duncan or Splitter inside Houston had a decided advantage down low and exploited it from the beginning, feeding Howard at every turn. Whether on the pick-and-roll, at the elbow, or on alley-oop passes, Howard was the target and had a double-double — 20 points and 12 rebounds — by halftime as he exploited a vulnerable Spurs interior defense where Matt Bonner, Jeff Ayers, and Aron Baynes struggled to keep up.

"We are a sum-of-the-parts team," Popovich said. "We have to have all our parts to be at our best. We can't rely on one player. We have to do it as a group. If we have injuries, we need our full bench to continue to play at our best."

When Howard was not scoring inside, James Harden filled the stat sheet, adding 20 points, six rebounds and six assists for the Rockets. While he had his share of points, Harden was clear after the game about the advantage of having a force inside.

"It's tough with the best big man in the league rolling down the paint," Harden said of Howard. "He's a lob target, and you have shooters around him. It's tough to guard it."