Howard was following Harden's lead. Houston isn't an intriguing landing spot without him. There would be no power struggle, no misunderstanding.
Almost a year into their partnership things have changed.
The Rockets are in danger of suffering a first-round exit at behest of the Portland Trail Blazers and it's Howard—not Harden—who can, who must, save their season.
Will the Real Harden Please Show Up?
For the second straight postseason, Harden doesn't look anything like a superstar. Portland's defense has done a nice job of keeping him in check, but many of his problems are self-inflicted.
Averages of 25.4 points and 5.8 assists per game would typically look good, just not when they're accompanied by 34.7 percent shooting overall and a 25 percent conversion rate from deep.
Through his first five games, Harden has 127 points on 118 field-goal attempts. That is not a typo.
Only five other players have done that in NBA playoff history, which shows you just how difficult it is to attempt at least 118 shots in five games without eclipsing 127 points. One of the other five is Russell Westbrook, who accomplished the same feat this year. Efficiency wise, he's been terrible. Sharing his company is something Harden shouldn't appreciate.
Point being, Harden has played bad. And when the Rockets needed him in Game 5, when their season was on the line, he didn't show up. He shot five of 15 from the floor—one of seven from three—for 17 points.
To be fair, Harden did come on late. He dropped seven points in a pivotal fourth quarter and made some key defensive stops. Once again, that is not a typo.
JAMES HARDEN DEFENSIVE PLAY SHUT IT DOWN WE'RE GOING HOME— Hardwood Paroxysm (@HPbasketball) May 1, 2014
But a few minutes of promise don't provide permanent refuge from the disaster Harden has helped create.
The man with a thicket of hair on his face has been a disappointment. He's shooting at career-playoff lows from the floor and three-point range, and his defensive rating stands at a career worst (116) and ranks as the ninth highest of players who have logged at least 100 postseason minutes.
In the face of adversity, Harden has crumbled. Credit him for an improved shot selection during Game 5, but he's had issues giving the ball up when he should.
How many games does this series have to go for the regular-season James Harden to show up? How many can it last while he doesn't?— Jonathan Feigen (@Jonathan_Feigen) May 1, 2014
Barely a fifth of his made baskets have come off assists, and nearly 68 percent of his shot attempts are coming outside the paint, of which he's hitting only 19 percent, according to NBA.com (subscription required).
“It’s the shot they’re giving me,” Harden said of his shooting woes heading into Game 5, via the Houston Chronicle's Jonathan Feigen. “When you play a team four or five times within 10 days, they’re going to slow some things. It’s a matter of having the confidence and just playing.”
Whatever confidence he's referencing is long lost. Despite the Blazers cutting off Harden's dribble penetration and forcing him into jumpers, many of the shots he's clanging off the rim are ones he usually hits.
There's a deficit in Harden's swagger. It's not there. Though he's defiant in his comments, he's submissive on the court. The best thing for him to do at this point is take a step back—sort of like he did for a bit in Game 5—allow his teammates to carry on, and allow Howard to do his thing.
Superman to the Rescue
Unlike Harden, Howard has been spectacular. The usual criticism continues to rain down upon him—too many post-ups—but nothing too horrifying.
Because Howard has been incredible.
Here's how his postseason performance compares to Harden's:
There isn't even question as to who has been the Rockets' MVP this series. Howard has elevated his play while Harden has ebbed into nothingness.
Sure, there are moments that make you want to scream when watching Howard. His footwork inside of five feet can be clumsy and blah and just difficult to watch when he's dribbling, and the pick-and-roll isn't being utilized as frequently as it needs to be by Houston's offense (we expand upon this here).
But Howard cannot be faulted for much, if anything. Pick-and-rolls aren't initiated by the roll men anyway. That responsibility would belong to the primary ball-handler, which, as you know, is Harden.
Right now, Howard is playing immaculate basketball, approaching every game with an immeasurable fire that his teammates—specifically Harden—need to pick up on.
"They don't understand it," he said of the Rockets following their Game 4 loss, per Bleacher Report's Kevin Ding. "At the same time, that's why it takes (veteran) guys like Francisco (Garcia), Josh Powell and myself to know that nothing is promised."
Of those three players who "understand it," Howard is the only one who has logged more than 22 minutes during the team's first-round series.
Three times over, that is not a typo.
Howard is tired of losing, exhausted from a decade of not being good enough, disgusted at the prospect of falling in the first round yet again.
During Game 5, he played every bit as angry and motivated as he's sounded throughout this series. From start to finish, he was gunning. He was demanding the ball, calling off Harden at different points, carrying the Rockets the way they needed to be carried.
Dwight Howard calls off Harden there, and he goes awkward footwork mode yet strong enough to finish in the post. No double team comes.— Jimmy Spencer (@JimmySpencerNBA) April 28, 2014
The defense he played on LaMarcus Aldridge was sensational. Aldridge has torched the Rockets all series; Howard, along with Terrence Jones and Omer Asik, was able to marginalize his offensive performance in Game 5, holding him to 3-of-12 shooting, including zero of three in the fourth quarter.
Modifications have been across the board down low. Aldridge went from scoring 46 points in Game 1, to dropping eight in Game 5. Though others—Jones and Asik—have pitched in, Howard is proving to do on defense what Harden hasn't done on offense: adjust.
Not even Howard's trips to the free-throw line can be chastised. He kept his cool for the most part, burying four of six from the charity stripe. When he was asked to come out, he was visibly frustrated, seemingly angered by the thought of putting this series in anyone else's hands.
Dwight Howard wasn't happy when Kevin McHale took him out at the 10:00 mark. Blazers close gap to 3 with him sidelined.— Tom Haberstroh (@tomhaberstroh) May 1, 2014
Everything he did looked and felt right.
The Rockets needed Game 5, so Howard gave it to them.
In Good Hands
What Howard has done isn't enough to wholeheartedly believe in a Rockets comeback. It's possible, but it's not likely.
Most of this series has seen the Rockets vary their efforts on both ends of the floor. They're discombobulated on defense when Portland moves the ball. Their offense has resorted to slow, stagnant sets that often conclude with shot-clock-draining post-ups or contested jumpers. There is no continuity.
But there is still hope, and not for any reason other than Howard.
The Howard we're seeing is a leader, a vocal behemoth that is willing the Rockets to victory much in the same way he did the Orlando Magic years ago. The Howard we're seeing, as Eye on Basketball's Zach Harper explains, is the Howard that Houston needs:
This is what he was brought to do with this team too. He was the leader we saw in Orlando when he had so much success under Stan Van Gundy. He was a wrecking force on offense and a closer on defense. He showed emotion on key stops and left out a lot of the preening and mannerisms that have helped him lose favor with the general basketball public during the past three years, fair or not.
Game 5 was a nice reminder for the Rockets and Howard himself that they're capable of playing with anybody and winning this series. They have the talent and they have the ability.
They also have this version of Howard, who is doing anything and everything to ensure his first year with the Rockets doesn't end in vain and disappointment. And the rest of Houston must follow suit.
Players, both young and old, need to understand the stakes. Age and inexperience at this level don't excuse ignorance. Howard is leading by example, by doing almost everything Harden is supposed to be doing. Everyone should understand what they're up against by now.
Which Rockets player is the most important to their potential first-round comeback?
Riding his wave of dominance is the only way Houston makes it past Portland. Role players such as Jeremy Lin and Chandler Parsons need to contribute, and Harden must find ways to exceed inelegance, but it's Howard who this team really needs.
Belief in Houston's cause is hard to come by these days, but it does exist. Thanks to Howard, there is an opportunity for the Rockets to keep fighting, survive the first round and stave off the collapse and failure he is working tirelessly to foil for the sake of what is, for now, his team.