Missing in Many Ways, Dwight Howard's Absence Becoming Old News for Rockets

Kevin Ding@@KevinDingNBA Senior WriterMay 20, 2015

AP Images

OAKLAND, Calif. — One after another, his teammates approached Dwight Howard at various points in the game, especially in the late going as he just sat there in sadness.

They lobbed brief, encouraging words or rubbed the scruff of hair on his head. For the team's final timeout with 11.8 seconds left, Howard was the player the farthest out on the periphery of the huddle, just chomping his gum.

With Howard missing all but the first 51 seconds of the fourth quarter with a knee injury, the Houston Rockets lost the Western Conference Finals opener to the Golden State Warriors, 110-106, on Tuesday night.

Oddly, the Rockets didn't exactly miss their second star that much.

"I didn't even remember that Dwight had gotten injured," James Harden said. "I was just so focused on the game and trying to rally the guys together. But hopefully he's all right."

Houston coach Kevin McHale did lament his team's rebounding without Howard, and indeed some damage was done via second-chance points, but the Rockets actually out-rebounded the Warriors in the fourth and for the game.

And the early lead that Howard's defense helped Houston get was squandered and then some when Golden State unleashed forward Draymond Green in a one-on-one matchup to flummox Howard despite the Houston center's four-inch, 35-pound advantage on Green.

It was a humbling experience for Howard, whose three turnovers just before halftime activated Golden State's whirlwind running game.

Howard's sore left knee (not the right knee that cost him much of this season), resulting from Josh Smith falling into him, was a logical excuse.

And Howard looked for others.

He barked at Jason Terry for not warning him that Golden State's double-team was coming. He complained to referee Danny Crawford before leaving the court for halftime about not being protected, and he came back to Crawford for more words before the third quarter.

Ben Margot/Associated Press

Howard played most of the third but then bowed out early in the fourth. He wasn't vocal with exhortations or advice from the bench as Houston rallied to tie the score but eventually faltered. When it was over, Howard just walked off in the rain of yellow confetti with his left leg dragging behind a bit, not quite bending as much as the right.

The way Smith fell into the outside of Howard's knee offered the impression the injury could be significant, but the Rockets announced it as a knee bruise (later changed to a knee sprain). Howard is expected to play Game 2 Thursday. He acknowledged it's "nothing major."

Nevertheless, in the postgame locker room, he was still being consoled. Even rookie benchwarmer Nick Johnson came up to Howard with a pat on the chest and a word of comfort.

It's to Howard's credit that he is a common-man superstar with whom his lesser teammates feel that comfortable. His admittedly childish antics go over better with guys born in the '90s than the '70s, but Howard is legitimately generous with his time and money.

You could argue that Howard is supposed to be a veteran leader who keeps his teammates focused on winning the championship.   

Well, we know by now that he's not that guy.

He's not a rock about whom no one ever has to worry. He needs the compassion other Rockets offered him Tuesday—and whatever guidance McHale can, too. Asked last week if he talks to Howard about keeping his composure, McHale sighed and said, "I have many times, yes."

So it was that Howard felt down on his luck in Game 1 of the NBA's equivalent of the Final Four, couldn't deliver and the Rockets left it at that.

No one resented that he didn't finish the game; no one was surprised he didn't dominate despite less than full health.

OAKLAND, CA - MAY 19:  Dwight Howard #12 of the Houston Rockets goes up against Andrew Bogut #12 of the Golden State Warriors in the first quarter during Game One of the Western Conference Finals of the 2015 NBA Playoffs at ORACLE Arena on May 19, 2015 in
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

"It was very painful," Howard said. "I tried to play it out as much as possible, but I couldn't get my teammates what I needed to get them. It is disappointing and frustrating, but it is a long series."

This is an undeniably valuable player whose limitations might've contributed to why his team lost its biggest game in years—but no one was putting the responsibility on him.

"It's unfortunate, but it's not an excuse why we lost," Trevor Ariza said.

Harking back to Howard's 41-game regular season, Terry commented, "We've been in this situation all season long."

In fact, Terry said the important takeaway from the loss was realizing why they lost: "We got stagnant there in the second quarter."

That was when the offense started running through Howard.

The general storyline going into this series was that the Rockets were underdogs because Harden just doesn't have the kind of help that Golden State's Stephen Curry does.

It didn't take long for it to be crystallized that no one is counting on Howard to seize this grand stage and reclaim his status as one of the game's top five players.

"I don't think Dwight is going to change his game much," McHale said just before Game 1. "He's in his 10th or 11th year."

In fact, Green spoke to Howard's predictability when recounting his head-to-head victory defending him in that second quarter.

May 19, 2015; Oakland, CA, USA; Houston Rockets center Dwight Howard (12) battles for the ball with Golden State Warriors forward Draymond Green (23) and center Andrew Bogut (12)  in the second half in game one of the Western Conference Finals of the NBA
Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

"If you hold your ground, he gets to trying to back you down so hard that it's hard for him to spin off of you," Green said. "And once he spins off of you, it's kind of slow because he's imposed all of his power already."

The best thing about Howard's still-rudimentary post moves this season? He didn't use them as much. He came back from that right knee injury and made sure to defer to Harden instead of prioritizing the individual offense Howard has in the past.

Perhaps part of it is Howard seeing value in a limited workload now.

He is fast becoming the poster boy for today's NBA trend of resting healthy stars, because after being so fantastically durable early in his career that he angled to swap out his "Superman" nickname for "Iron Man," Howard has seen his body break down year after year after year after year, even though he's not yet 30.

In his first seven seasons, Howard played 569 of 574 possible games. Back pain flared up and ended his eighth season. His ninth was the Lakers calamity, and people in L.A. even now remain conflicted about that 2012-13 season.

Yes, Howard came back at less than full strength after back surgery, but he couldn't sustain his basic effort when he was out there. Then with the club fighting to make the playoffs, he refused for some time to play through a shoulder injury that was painful but was never going to heal from brief rest anyway.

That season wasn't much fun for Howard. These last two in Houston have been better, even if this season Howard had to deal with the distraction of a child abuse allegation (that was eventually dropped) while also trying to make sure his right knee wouldn't let him down in the playoff run.

OAKLAND, CA - MAY 19: Dwight Howard #12, Jason Terry #31, Corey Brewer #33 and James Harden #13 of the Houston Rockets against the Golden State Warriors during Game One of the Western Conference Finals during the NBA Playoffs on May 19, 2015 at ORACLE Are
Noah Graham/Getty Images

Then Tuesday, it became his left knee—and this missed opportunity to get the lead in the Western Conference Finals.

Yet Howard wasn't bitter about his body letting him down. He wasn't angry that he couldn't redeem those failures against Green, who this season nearly won the NBA Defensive Player of the Year award that Howard formerly was insulted he didn't get every year.

Howard stood in front of his locker nearly an hour after the game had ended. On his arms, you could still make out the indentation of the manufacturer's name imprinted on those sleeves that he wears so tightly that they show off his guns.

The muscles still look extremely impressive. And when Howard rebounds, runs the floor and defends the rim, it remains great stuff.

It's just not like it used to be in Orlando.

As important as he is to Houston, when Howard disappears like he did Tuesday night, no one thinks he's off changing clothes in a telephone booth.

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