OAKLAND -- A year ago at this time, when Andrew Bogut was in training room purgatory trying to heal his myriad injuries, the Warriors would have dreaded a three-game trip like the one that starts Friday night against Dwight Howard and the Houston Rockets.
It's still a foreboding junket. The Warriors will be facing three big, physical teams over four nights in the Rockets, Memphis Grizzlies and Charlotte Bobcats, all clubs that try to dictate the tempo and texture of the game from inside the paint.
Hence, if you have any doubt as to a healthy Bogut's importance on this particular trip, consider the words of forward Marreese Speights. Speights played a season and a half with Memphis in 2011 and 2012, and said when the Warriors came to town, the objective was always simple.
"The main focus was out-bullying them, and making sure you hit 'em a couple times," said Speights, now a Warrior. "That was the mindset every time they played against us."
With Bogut now fully able and willing to bully back if necessary, such tactics are not only less likely but less likely to be effective. That said, the Warriors' rejuvenated big man will have his hands full on this trip, starting with Howard in his new Houston digs Friday.
The Warriors will catch a break in Memphis with center Marc Gasol out with a sprained knee, but there's still Zach Randolph with whom to deal. Charlotte has a like force in Al Jefferson, and the Bobcats also have another 7-foot beast in Cody Zeller.
"They have big guys on all three of these teams," Bogut said Thursday. "Memphis is a little banged up, but this is still going to be a tough battle for us. There are tough matchups for everybody."
Coach Mark Jackson feels a whole lot better about a trip like this, though, with Bogut manning the middle. He brings the toughness the Warriors simply didn't have last year while he was on the shelf rehabilitating his surgically repaired left ankle.
"We certainly need that," Jackson said. "You look at the DNA of our players, naturally that's not who they are, and he brings that to this team -- a presence, a force, a level of physical play that makes life easier for us."
Bogut faced off against Howard just once last season when Howard was with the Los Angeles Lakers. He neutralized him reasonably well, limiting him to just 11 points in a 109-103 Warriors win in late March. They are hardly strangers, though, having faced off 14 times when Bogut was with Milwaukee and Howard played for Orlando.
"He's gotten a lot better," Bogut said. "When I first played him, I was a rookie and he was a second- or third-year guy, he was an athletic guy who would dunk a lot. But now he's expanded his post game and worked on his left hand a lot. He's got multiple weapons now, and he's always going to be that physical, imposing body down there."
Bogut knows he can't stop Howard but hopes to slow him down.
"He's just constantly banging against you and trying to get offensive rebounds and lobs and easy baskets, so I have to do my work early and make sure he doesn't get any easy looks. If he's making five-foot hooks and jumpers, so be it. We can live with that. But if he's getting easy dunks and tip-ins, I'm not doing my job. But I think I'm strong enough to guard a guy like Dwight Howard."
Bogut is well past the offseason rumblings that the Warriors made a strong pursuit to lure Howard to Golden State. He doesn't think it's worth discussing anymore, particularly because he's finally showing the Warriors the kinds of things he's capable of. He hasn't missed a game or even a practice because of injury, and as he added, "I hope not to this season."
Such an iron-man outlook would have sounded inconceivable last year at this time. Bogut said he went through anguish having to watch road games on TV and not being able to work out with the team on a regular basis.
"(Being out) takes a physical toll because it hurts, but it takes a mental toll as well," he said. "You have to come in and do all the rehab, and you're limited in how much you can run. It's very frustrating. People think when you're hurt you're stealing money, but the training you do when you're hurt is actually worse because they put you through the ringer to get you into shape."
Bogut's conditioning now is as noteworthy as his health. He said his vertical leap is finally back, something he didn't have even when he returned to the lineup late last season and during the playoffs.
"I feel like I can jump now and get to some of those lobs Steph (Curry) throws," he said. "Last year, I had no chance of getting to them."
Warriors (11-8) at Houston (13-7), 5 p.m. CSNBA