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."
As the Spurs struggled to keep Howard from gutting them in the middle, they had little consistency when they had the ball. They started the game sluggish, going scoreless in the first six minutes.
While San Antonio rebounded and pulled to within 18-15 at the end of the first quarter, that was as close as the Spurs would get. The tough night finished with the defending NBA champs, who trailed by as many as 31, shooting just 34.4 percent from the field.
"It was a bad night tonight and I couldn't hit a shot," Tony Parker, who finished with just six points, said. "Defensively, we did OK, but we never got into an offensive rhythm."
Cory Joseph led the Spurs with 18 points off the bench and Baynes had 12 points and 11 rebounds.
Spurs: Marco Belinelli was an injury scratch due to a strained right groin and was replaced by Bonner. . San Antonio started 0-for-15 on 3-pointers, making their first with 7:02 to go in the third quarter, and finished 2 for 20 from beyond the arc.
Rockets: Terrence Jones missed his second straight game with a leg contusion. . Patrick Beverley missed the game due to a strained hamstring and was replaced by Isaiah Canaan, who scored 12 points along with Jason Terry's 16 points. . Houston has now won six games over the Spurs dating to last season.
Houston has won each of its first six games by 10 points or more. According to Elias Sports Bureau, the Rockets are the first team to accomplish the feat since the 1985-86 Denver Nuggets.
DEFENDING THE ARC
Houston came into the game holding opponents to 29.1 percent from beyond the arc. That number will improve after holding the Spurs to 2-for-20 shooting from 3-point range.
Spurs: Host New Orleans on Saturday.
Rockets: Host Golden State on Saturday.