PORTLAND, Oregon — Just as much as Daryl Morey up in the front office, Chandler Parsons has been building the team from the ground up.
Too bad Parsons remains so alone down on the court in understanding the next step: After the big names come together on the roster, it must be more than ever all about building the team.
Late Sunday night, the upbeat blond with the nickname "SUNSHINE" pasted above his locker, the guy whose joyful texts got Dwight Howard to sign and whose fun pre-tip ritual of stroking James Harden's beard went viral, sat there and put it plainly.
"We should be better than this," Parsons said.
The Houston Rockets are facing elimination after their 123-120 overtime loss in Game 4 of their first-round series against the Portland Trail Blazers. Parsons carried the Rockets away from elimination early Sunday night before stepping back to let Harden and Howard do their respective individual things—and the result was all of them losing again.
They lost together, but separately, if you know what I mean.
"It's just hard to play a team and play against ourselves at the same time," Parsons said. "It's impossible to win that way."
Meanwhile, hear what Portland's young star Damian Lillard had to say after his side prevailed: "Our strength is in our unity. And it showed tonight."
It showed in Portland's Game 3 overtime loss, too. The Rockets won that one despite their lack of teamwork, and kudos to Houston coach Kevin McHale for going hard with Harden-Howard pick-and-rolls early in Game 4 to force-feed teamwork that set the table for Parsons to score 26 points on 11-of-15 shooting through three quarters.
Parsons had no points on 0-of-3 shooting in the fourth quarter and overtime, when Harden and Howard scored 26 of Houston's 36 points and the Rockets lost the game. At one point while that was happening late in regulation, Harden went to the floor in the lane, and instead of helping him up while right there, Howard went to argue with the referee.
It was similar to the moment in Game 3 when Howard, noted advocate of helping teammates up in his one season in Los Angeles, looked at teammate Jeremy Lin crumpled in that same lane after being fouled in the face…and turned away to argue with the referee about not getting a call on the previous play.
Parsons, of course, was the one to walk past Howard then and try to help Lin up. Parsons can seriously do everything on the court in a rare 6'9" frame—and he also understands the value of being a team guy from not being an ego-driven main man his entire life.
Parsons has gradually built his basketball career to the point that the second-round pick was the Rockets' captain before Omer Asik, Lin, Harden and Howard all joined the team. Parsons, 25, is still the captain now, a telling sign of how much his teammates appreciate him.
When Harden took over the game early in the fourth quarter Sunday with his shot-making, Parsons and last man on the bench Josh Powell were the first ones up and out on the court to congratulate him. Parsons is such a good guy that he said something to Portland's Robin Lopez after he fouled out, and the frustrated Lopez actually smiled and reached out to pat Parsons on the shoulder before going to the bench.
Whether you want to believe he's "Sunshine" for his likeness to the blond quarterback by that name in Remember the Titans or from Parsons' Florida roots, there's no question that he makes people happy when skies are gray. It doesn't stop there, though; whereas Howard just wants his giggles, Parsons is fighting an uphill battle to get guys to warm up to the point that they willingly make sacrificial plays for each other.
Wait, aren't the All-Star players the ones who are supposed to make their teammates better?
Instead, Parsons on this night lamented letting his momentum go so Howard and Harden could take their turns: "I can't sit back. I've got to be a part of the offense, especially when I've got it going like that."
The lasting image from this game came at the start of overtime. After a Howard turnover, Harden made his usual feeble effort on defense, waving at an entry pass instead of investing himself in something he doesn't want to do. The mistake left Parsons, of course, to come over in help defense and prevent LaMarcus Aldridge's free run to the hoop, which Parsons tried emphatically to do with a flagrant foul.
A similar play happened in Game 3, except Harden actually did the right thing with hard, solid rotating defense—and Aldridge was so shocked to see Harden do it that he nearly broke the back of the rim with his errant shot.
Howard has power to build this up, but Harden has even more.
And after Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash bonded in Los Angeles because they knew they wanted to win so much more than Howard, here is Howard finding that he actually wants to win more than Harden.
McHale was absolutely exasperated after the game. How often do you see an NBA head coach open his postgame interview by talking with his hands covering his face?
"We held the ball way too often," McHale said. "We just held the ball way too much."
That's what Harden is the best in the league at doing, and that's the example he sets for this group. As long as he doesn't want to do his share of the dirty work, the Rockets won't ever contend—which was the subtext of McHale's speech to his team in the losing locker room, a sentiment he repeated to reporters.
"The playoffs, it's a grind," McHale said. "You've got to be built for the grind, man. You've just got to grind out wins."
Harden sat in that locker room afterward, brushed out his beard and cited "mental errors down the stretch we can't have."
It goes so much deeper than that. Team building is a complicated process of heavy construction—and delays are common when things don't work right. Howard is having a strong series, but if he didn't lay the proper bricks during the season for his teammates to follow now, he has to take some blame.
Howard chose to escape the old Lakers and go to a team filled with guys his age for the future and the fun. The grins have been there and been on display in their Instagram accounts from the team plane or in Parsons swiping Howard's phone on the team bus and tweeting before the playoffs:
But it was Blazers veteran Mo Williams, 31, who inspired his team at halftime Sunday night with his seize-the-day speech—or his seize-the-day screams. Blazers star Aldridge explained the impact of this not-so-fun time together by saying, "Mo is always talking, but he never screams."
Howard, 28, gets it more than Harden, 24. Howard said about the younger Rockets, "They don't understand it. At the same time, that's why it takes (veteran) guys like Francisco (Garcia), Josh Powell and myself to know that nothing is promised."
Well, Garcia and Powell don't play. And Parsons gets it the most, but what should really scare Rockets fans is that Parsons staying beyond this season is no sure thing. The Rockets can let him become a restricted free agent this summer—or (more likely) they can keep him via team option but thereby make him an unrestricted free agent next summer.
Besides Harden and Howard, the Rockets are already paying Asik and Lin inflated salaries next season. In the context of his contract, Parsons looms even more important in this developing into a championship team.
He could definitely look to cash in as much as possible and go somewhere else—which we know is possible based on how Harden handled that sort of situation in Oklahoma City, where a title was even more likely had he stayed.
The Thunder didn't want to max out Harden, in part because he wasn't the kind of team guy to bring out the best in Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. We might not yet be noticing Harden's failure to launch his current teammates if not for what a hungry crew this is in Portland, where Aldridge and Lillard are sincerely happy for the other's success and the community support helps, too.
The local news Friday featured a reporter in a Blazers jersey doing his news report from downtown eight hours before the game.
It's only the first round, guys!
But the Blazers, the big team in town, haven't won a playoff series since 2000, the longest current streak in the NBA. And it's funny, but when that drought began in 2001, someone else was sitting at the very same corner spot of the visitors' locker room that Harden occupied Sunday night.
Back then, Bryant looked up at a pregame interview of Portland's Scottie Pippen speaking confidently on the nearby TV. Bryant spoke simply to Pippen's image on the screen: "This is your last day of work."
A few hours later, the Lakers had swept the Blazers in the first round en route to the NBA title.
Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal didn't so much put their differences aside as they put their togetherness first come playoff time, playing Phil Jackson's system basketball that forced them to work together instead of this taking-turns stuff that Harden and Howard usually do.
Parsons now can't possibly be Jackson, Rick Fox, Robert Horry, Brian Shaw and Derek Fisher all rolled into one guiding light—and even if he were, it's hard to say now that Harden and Howard are ready to figure it out anyway.
Yet Parsons can only keep at it, knowing it remains remotely possible for the Rockets to win the rest of the series because two of those three games would be at home.
Presented with the excuse of youth, Parsons scoffed and said, "This is the first year we've been playing together, but that doesn't matter, either. We're a good team with the potential to be great. We're just not reaching our ceiling."
Keep fighting the good fight, Sunshine.
Kevin Ding covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @KevinDing.