The Mavericks hoped to just let Howard get his feet wet in his first game back after a 13-game rehab stint, which followed an aborted November return from offseason surgery on his left ankle. But Dallas needed a superb performance by Howard to survive Tuesday night against the Phoenix Suns.
Howard didn't start and struggled offensively in the first half but played with great energy from the moment he got off the bench. The Mavs left it up to him when he wanted to come back, and it was clear he had much more confidence in the ankle than he did during his hobbling three-game run last month.
The confidence in his game came after halftime.
Howard carried the Mavs for key stretches in their 102-101 win over the Suns. He had 16 of his 20 points in the second half, providing the Mavs the slashing element that their offense had been missing in the last two games, when they sputtered to their first consecutive losses of the season.
"We hit a spell there where he was the only offense we had going," coach Rick Carlisle said. "He really kept us afloat. It shows you how important he is to our team. He showed a lot of guts tonight, too, because he was tired and you could tell he was sore."
Howard accepts that there will be soreness in his ankle, which underwent minor reconstructive surgery May 22, the week after the Mavs were eliminated from the playoffs. He expects that to continue for the rest of the season.
"Hopefully, one day it will go away," said Howard, who played 26 minutes against the Suns and will sit out one game of this weekend's back-to-back as a precaution.
Howard is willing to play through pain as long as he feels like he can perform well. He was the Mavs' best player in the playoff series win over the San Antonio Spurs last season despite knowing that his ankle needed surgery.
When Howard made his season debut last month, he didn't feel as if he could cut well off his left foot. The decision was made to put him on the inactive list until he thought he was ready to play. Then the work really started.
Athletic trainer Casey Smith and strength and conditioning coach Robert Hackett put Howard through grueling rehab sessions on a daily basis, in addition to Howard participating in practices. They built up the strength in Howard's ankle and his confidence in it.
"Mentally, he's just more ready for it," Mavs owner Mark Cuban said.
As a result, Howard displayed no hesitation Tuesday night. When his shot wasn't falling in the first half, he was still active defensively and ran the floor hard, resulting in a couple of trips to the free throw line after getting fouled on fast breaks.
Those free throws helped him get in a groove in the second half, when he looked like the guy who earned a trip to the 2007 All-Star game.
"My role hasn't changed," Howard said. "It's just a new year. That's about it. I've just got to stay consistent with what I've been doing over the years."
Actually, there were two significant differences in Howard's role Tuesday. He came off the bench, which will continue for a little while to help Carlisle keep his minutes down. And he was dominant during the fourth quarter, when Howard has tended to disappear offensively throughout his career. He had nine consecutive points for the Mavs during one stretch in the fourth quarter while they maintained their lead.
To Carlisle, how Howard gets his points is as important as when he gets them. The Mavs tend to become stagnant offensively when he isn't available, because they rely too much on Dirk Nowitzki and Jason Terry to create. Howard, who can be a mismatch problem for smaller guards or slower forwards, fills in the gaps in the Mavs' offense when he's aggressive.
"He brings a certain kind of force to our game," Carlisle said. "He's the best cutter we have, he's a great runner, he's probably our best driver, he's a dead-eye shooter from midrange and he hits spot-up 3s. He's invaluable."
Added point guard Jason Kidd: "It's good to have No. 5 back."
This time, it should be for good.