Deep Divide Between Harden, Howard Can't Be Masked by Rockets' Game 3 Victory

Kevin Ding@@KevinDingNBA Senior WriterApril 26, 2014

Don Ryan/AP Images

PORTLAND, Ore. — We never did get to see Dwight Howard in the NBA playoffs last season alongside Kobe Bryant.

It would've looked a lot like this.

Howard and his next-gen partner, James Harden, showcased some outstanding individual talent and precious little teamwork Friday night, and by the margin of a few beard hairs, the Houston Rockets dodged another embarrassing stain on the start of their partnership.

The Rockets blew a nine-point lead in the last 5:18 of regulation and survived overtime on Friday, 121-116, to avoid losing all three of Harden and Howard's first playoff games together to the Portland Trail Blazers.

Whether the season ends at the hands of the bench-poor Blazers or someone else, it's not ending happily, and it's valid to wonder if Harden and Howard will ever really live a fairy-tale existence together.

Harden's shot-creating disguised a lack of team play, same as it often did in the regular season. And after the last in a long line of lame efforts by Harden on defense allowed Damian Lillard to fly by for a reverse layup late in regulation, Howard had enough. He yelled at Harden right there on the court as a timeout began.

Lillard (16 seconds into the video below) had waved to his teammates to show blatantly he wanted clear space to drive baseline against Harden, who just let Lillard have it and made no effort whatsoever to recover. Lillard, after getting past Jeremy Lin's leaping help defense, had only gone for the reverse layup because he logically expected Harden to have chased after him.

Harden's disinterest in doing the right things on defense has ceased to be a secret. Even if you give him a pass late in the regular season for his increased burden on offense amid Houston's injuries, it has become clear in the postseason that Harden remains perfectly content to stand around on defense and go for everything on offense.

That's just the sort of thing that prompted Howard to yell at Bryant just a month into their Los Angeles Lakers partnership, Howard even sticking a finger in the face of a seated Bryant in a timeout that December 2012 night in New Orleans. Say what you want about Howard's array of immaturities and insecurities, but the guy knows how to play defense, and if Harden intends to hold the leading-man title with so many teammates lacking experience, he really has to do so much better.

As of now, there's no true mutual respect between Houston's two All-Stars.

Harden, 24, and Howard, 28, clearly have their own priorities. Those include Howard getting his touches in the post—and Harden getting Howard out of the lane for room to drive. So the Rockets look like great players but don't even look like a good team.

They have a theory on how to play basketball, focusing on scoring via threes, free throws and in the paint, but they don't have a system that mandates Harden and Howard really being all-in as far as working together. Their style is basically alternating attack modes, which is the sort of simplistic approach that always gets mucked up come playoff time.

It was appropriate that the final key play of the Rockets' season-saving victory Friday was a random display of teamwork by former NBA Development Leaguers Lin and Troy Daniels—Harden having lost the ball and Howard left calling for the ball while Lin set up Daniels for what would be the difference-making three-pointer.

Not long before that, Harden had put both hands on Lin and stared into his eyes after Lin had lost the ball on a play Lin was supposed to dump the ball simply to Harden. Earlier in the game, Howard had yelled at Lin for being late in feeding Howard in the post.

Neither Howard nor Harden was anywhere to be found after Lin got cracked in the face a minute into overtime and lay on the court for some time. Howard, who two months into his Lakers season complained about Lakers not helping each other up, stood right near Lin, looked back at him and decided to go the other way to complain to a referee about no foul on Howard's missed shot to start overtime. Chandler Parsons eventually walked past Howard to try to help Lin.

Some disagreement on the court is going to happen, but there has got be a lot more connectivity to balance it out. Rockets coach Kevin McHale elicited a few flashes of teamwork when he ran the tight play with Howard feeding Harden in the post, screening for him and then popping free for an alley-oop from Harden.

Harden needs to be challenged by a coach to facilitate that way—and adhere to the team's defensive format—instead of just being a scorer. As much as Harden has exploded as an individual star with the Rockets, his game has actually gone from versatile to vanilla—no matter that his offensive flavor is fantastic.

That was always the problem with Howard's decision to join the Rockets. OK, he didn't like Bryant preaching to him what winning was all about, but there have been plenty of signs that Harden isn't about winning at all.

The Oklahoma City Thunder believing more in Serge Ibaka than Harden wasn't solely about big defense over small offense. Everything is a character study, as we've learned over recent years with Howard being an undeniable physical specimen...with all those immaturities and insecurities.

Even after this first playoff victory together, we have no more reason at all to believe Harden and Howard are going to grow to understand each other the way LeBron James and Dwyane Wade did in Miami. Harden and Howard both want it to be fun and easy and done their way, and neither is locked in on what really matters even now.

After the Game 2 loss in Houston, Harden got into a verbal dispute with reporter Fran Blinebury after Blinebury questioned Harden's missed shots. It was a serious enough situation that onlookers believed that five more minutes and it would've gotten physical. As it was, before team officials led him away, Harden called out that Blinebury was a "weirdo."

Apr 25, 2014; Portland, OR, USA; Houston Rockets center Dwight Howard (12) during the first quarter in game three of the first round of the 2014 NBA Playoffs against the Portland Trail Blazers at the Moda Center. Mandatory Credit: Craig Mitchelldyer-USA T

Howard wasn't looking too poised after the Game 3 victory, either. He had done his usual stuff to entertain himself—a lot of three-point shots in his pregame warmup and talking to fans all night. This time, though, as a female fan heckled him before Harden's final free throws with 1.1 seconds left in overtime, Howard didn't laugh it off. He was annoyed enough that after the final horn, he was lured into another mean-spirited exchange with a courtside fan. When Rockets teammate Patrick Beverley came over for a postgame high-five, Howard was too busy yelling at the fan to be bothered by Beverley.

Yes, the Rockets did win the game, which was the main thing. McHale summed it up aptly, saying, "We're not a fine-tuned machine right now, but we went out and played hard."

Playing hard helped them come up with the play that ended in Daniels' tie-breaking three, although as Blazers coach Terry Stotts noted, "Mo (Williams) had the ball. We could've been running the other way with it. But instead Daniels hits a three. A bounce of the ball here or there makes a difference."

Realistic conclusion from Stotts. Harden, meanwhile, was still out of touch.

For as close as the game was, Harden was talking like some delusional field-goal kicker bragging about how he just nailed the winning kick…off the goal post.

"We weren't going to let our season end like that," Harden said.


Kevin Ding covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @KevinDing.