HOUSTON (AP) — The Houston Rockets were happy simply to return to the playoffs last season.
A year later and with the addition of Dwight Howard, the Rockets are back in the postseason and looking to make some noise. They play Game 1 of their first-round series against Portland on Sunday night.
"Just being here is not good enough," said Chandler Parsons, who made his playoff debut last year. "We want to win and we want to contend for a championship and we want to be the last team standing."
The Rockets returned to the playoffs last season for the first time since 2009 and battled back from a 3-0 deficit in the first round before being eliminated by Oklahoma City in Game 6.
James Harden, who is fifth in the NBA in scoring with 25.4 points a game, believes the experience of last year will help Houston this time around.
"I think last year that first-round playoff series gave us a little taste of what it feels like to be in the playoffs," he said. "So hopefully we're familiar with the playoffs and whatnot and we go out there and just play basketball."
Howard's first season in Houston has been a good one. He bounced back from his one tough season in Los Angeles to average 18.3 points and 12.2 rebounds a game. This will be his seventh trip to the postseason and the 28-year-old is looking to help his less-seasoned teammates handle the pressure of the playoffs.
"I just try to lead these guys by example," he said. "Just give the guys some words of advice, but make sure they're also confident that we can win this series and win the whole thing."
The Trail Blazers haven't advanced to the playoffs since 2011. LaMarcus Aldridge and Nicolas Batum lead their group of players with postseason experience, but a number of their teammates will be making their playoff debuts.
Second-year point guard Damian Lillard is among the Trail Blazers who are new to the postseason.
"I'm just going to try to go into it and play it like another basketball game," Lillard said, "and not put too much pressure on the fact that it's my first playoff game or that we're on the road or all those other things."
Five things to know about the Portland-Houston playoff series:
HAIR FOR WHEELS?: Howard wanted his teammates to get Mohawk haircuts like the ones he and Harden have before the playoffs. Parsons was reticent to put the clippers to his well-coiffed 'do so Howard gave him a nice incentive to make the change. He's letting him drive his white Ferrari as long as Houston is in the playoffs. "I'm driving that thing every day until we win a championship," said Parsons, who normally drives a Cadillac. "I don't know if I'm ever going to be able to drive something else, that thing's unreal." The story got misconstrued at first and some thought Howard gave Parsons the car for the haircut, something Howard scoffed at. "That would be kind of crazy," Howard said. "I love Chandler, but I'm not giving him a car." Parsons was scheduled to get his haircut Saturday evening.
BACK AT HOME: Aldridge, who is from Dallas and went to the University of Texas, is looking forward to playing in his home state. "I've always loved coming back and playing against the Spurs and Rockets and Dallas," he said. "So it's definitely some added fun for me coming back here." He said he's been inundated with ticket requests from friends and family, but he doesn't want it to be a circus so he only got seats for about six family members. Aldridge has been excellent against Houston this season, averaging almost 27 points a game in the four meetings and has two games with more than 20 rebounds.
BAD BOYS: Several of the Rockets watched ESPN's documentary "Bad Boys" about the Detroit teams in the late 1980s and early 1990s this week and enjoyed coach Kevin McHale's cameo in the film playing for the Celtics against those teams. They thought McHale was being harder on them in practice this week because he was fired up by the movie. "He always brags about how they don't make them like they used to and how he's so much tougher than everybody," Parsons said. "It looked like it on the floor. I don't want to fight him."
LOOKING FOR A WIN: The Trail Blazers have lost in the first round in their last six trips to the playoffs. They haven't advanced to the second round since losing in the Western Conference finals in 2000. The drought doesn't add any extra motivation for Aldridge, though. "I'm motivated period," he said. "I don't have to have that I'm just an overly motivated person."
THE CLOSER: Harden has developed a penchant this season for being Houston's closer. There's no one the Rockets would rather have handling the ball with the game on the line than him. "I think James has just made a lot of big shots all year long," McHale said. "We go to him in the end. He's done a good job of understanding that it's not always taking the shot, it's making the play." Harden said his increased confidence has made this role easier this season. "It's all about decision-making," he said. "My teammates have a lot of confidence in me to make the right play and I've got to ready at all times."