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Howard moving back to a dominant level

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AP Photo/David J. Phillip

DALLAS -- Sometimes Dwight Howard smiles and acts as if he wants to fall down laughing.

The Houston Rockets center is often asked about how his knee is feeling and what he thinks of the physicality of this seven-game series against the Dallas Mavericks.

In the first three games of this series, Howard has been a dominant force taking on the pushes, shoves and forearms to the back from Tyson Chandler, Amar'e Stoudemire and Dirk Nowitzki.

The way Howard sees it, the physical nature of this series isn’t an issue -- and his teammates agree.

“It’s funny because I’m laughing, too,” power forward Josh Smith said. “This is the postseason and if you’re a basketball fanatic and you like sports and you watch any kind of playoff atmosphere in any sport it gets a little bit more intense and the physicality picks up. All the games around the league that’s going on right now, they’ve been letting guys play and that’s what you want in a series.”

While James Harden just took over the series with his playoff career-high, 42-point night in the Game 3 victory on Friday, Howard had a stunning performance.

He snagged a playoff career-high 26 rebounds, which also tied a Houston playoff high. Howard had just 13 points but in reality scoring wasn’t important here, it’s the way he’s playing, with a physical presence.

“My time will come in different spots,” Howard said. “But the one thing I can always control is the paint and just try to get every rebound, block as many shots as I could, crash the boards and just be as aggressive as I can.”

“He was a beast,” Harden said of Howard’s performance on Friday night.

Howard missed nearly two months while dealing with swelling in his right knee and once he returned, he was on a minutes restriction. As the regular season wound down, the minutes increased, as did the production. Howard will play between 30 and 35 minutes a game in the postseason.

Coach Kevin McHale said he noticed the old Howard had returned in an April 12 game against New Orleans. Howard faced Anthony Davis and produced 19 points, 11 rebounds and three blocked shots in 28 minutes.

So far in the first three games of the postseason Howard is shooting 58.8 percent from the floor, snagging 14.3 rebounds, 3.0 blocks and 17.3 points per game. His 23.2 rebounds per 100 possessions is a career high.

The block average is his highest since the 2009-10 season when he averaged 3.5 with Orlando. Last season, Howard carried the Rockets during their opening-round loss to Portland. Harden has morphed into the best player for the Rockets now, however, Howard is proving he remains an elite player.

“I think he’s looking the same way, lively wise,” McHale said. “I think he’s getting comfortable with what he’s doing and playing well and he’s got great energy and his leg looks great, fantastic.”

While Howard remains playful, he's serious because he knows what needs to be accomplished with the Rockets ahead 3-0 on the Mavericks.

At the end of Saturday’s practice, Howard flung a basketball into the net from 94 feet away, causing his teammates to cheer. The Rockets posted video of the shot on their Twitter feed and of course it went viral, especially after LeBron James did the same thing earlier in the day.

The serious side of Howard is on display nightly. There are fewer smiles on the court than in years past, with Howard not backing down from any center or power forward that engages him on the court. When words are expressed toward him, he gives it right back.

He seems more intent on getting his team out of the first round, something that’s happened just once since 1997.

“We got to stay humble,” Howard said. “We’ve had three good games but we haven’t closed this team out. It’s tough to beat a team four times, we just got to stay the course. We can’t allow these first three games to dictate how we play this last game. We got to come out and hit them early and put them away and not give them any life.”