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Howard's Failure to Grow Puts Rockets' Future in James Harden's Hands Yet Again

Kevin Ding@@KevinDingNBA Senior WriterMay 28, 2015

Scott Halleran/Getty Images

OAKLAND, Calif. — On his way out of the Houston Rockets locker room following Game 5's 104-90 loss to the Golden State Warriors, James Harden walked with a hardback book tucked under his arm, ready for a diversion on his flight out of Oakland and into the offseason.

The book, Death Row Chaplain, is about finding hope despite turmoil. Warriors team chaplain Earl Smith offers the perspective, ironically, but prior to that he was a counselor of inmates at San Quentin State Prison.

Just before the locker room door, though, Harden changed stride and made a left turn. He veered over to go to Dwight Howard's locker. Howard sat facing the wall, his back to the room, not welcoming visitors. Harden reached over to offer a consoling head rub anyway.

It was a starkly different Howard than before the game, when he was his usual vivacious self and flashing toothy grins. Most guys stand with their backs to the fans throughout, but Howard opens up and faces the spectators whenever he's around the perimeter—except when shooting his pregame three-pointers.

When one Golden State fan waved to Howard from the safety of eight rows up and venomously told him he should've been suspended for his Game 4 shot to Andrew Bogut's face, Howard just smiled. Even as the third quarter was starting, Howard was visibly thrilled to share a bro hug with Kanye West at his courtside seat.

The threat of the Rockets season ending Wednesday night wasn't scaring Howard, whose theory on self-management is all about positive thinking. His issue with his critics is that negative energy doesn't do him or anyone any good. Alas, it also makes him poorly equipped to understand the past and learn from mistakes, which is the foremost reason his game hasn't grown over the years. 

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And now Howard's psychology is Harden's ball and chain.

May 27, 2015; Oakland, CA, USA; Houston Rockets guard James Harden (13) loses the ball as Golden State Warriors forward Draymond Green (23) defends during the third quarter in game five of the Western Conference Finals of the NBA Playoffs at Oracle Arena.
Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

As tremendous as Howard remains on defense—his first-quarter rim protection to help Houston take the early lead was as good as you'll ever see—Harden really needs Howard to improve but can't realistically expect it. That's a problem for Harden, who carried the Rockets all season long while Howard missed half the season to make sure his right knee was ready for this playoff run.

In the end, Harden was worn out. He had nothing left. Yes, Andre Iguodala's fresh legs and defensive aptitude were part of it, but Golden State's defense did the same lane-plugging against Harden with its power forward as it has the whole series.

Asked late Wednesday night if he was fatigued, Harden's non-answer was a clear answer. "I'm all right," he said after a pause, the truth given away through his sideways look. "I'm 25 years old. I'm all right."

Harden had delivered 45 points in Game 4 to hold the Warriors off. His brilliant play had prevented the first two games from being the blowout failure that Game 3 was. Still, Harden will be ridiculed for his 13 turnovers in Game 5, the most ever in a playoff game, especially against just 14 points.

But how nice would it have been if he could have counted on Howard to take a fair turn in Houston's one-two punch? How great would it have been if the Rockets could've stolen Game 1 with Howard overcoming his left knee pain instead of bowing out from it (with Harden, amid his great burden, actually forgetting Howard got hurt)?

Howard just isn't a legit weapon on offense, and Harden needs one to help him. The more Houston uses Howard on offense for anything but lobs when his man leaves him, the worse the Rockets' flow is.

May 27, 2015; Oakland, CA, USA; Houston Rockets center Dwight Howard (12) looks to score as Golden State Warriors center Festus Ezeli (31) defends during the first half in game five of the Western Conference Finals of the NBA Playoffs. at Oracle Arena. Ma
Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Game 5 went the same way as Game 1: The Rockets ruled early behind Howard's defense, but then they stagnated in the second quarter with Harden resting and Howard trying to do too much in the post.

Howard can't finish touch shots, and he can't create shots for others. He was stymied by the smaller Draymond Green in Game 1 and the unheralded Festus Ezeli in Game 5 in the respective second quarters as the Warriors took control.

Rockets coach Kevin McHale had gone into the series stressing force, saying, "We're going to have to knock 'em on their rear end…punch 'em in the mouth."

Yet once the series was over, the most damning assessment of the Rockets' makeup came from Green, who said Warriors coach Steve Kerr told them at halftime Wednesday, "It's ugly, but I like our team better in an ugly game than theirs."

The Rockets have the one dominant inside player in the series in Howard, but they don't have the edge in ugly. It's why general manager Daryl Morey went all in for Chris Bosh last year, knowing what a difference it would make to have some efficiency inside. With Bosh, the Rockets also would've had a proven champion who commands respect.

Jason "Jet" Terry was the closest Houston had instead, with McHale raving after the series ended about the value of the 37-year-old guard with one title from the 2011 Dallas Mavericks. "Jet's got championship blood in those veins," McHale said.

That's the same Jet whom Howard yelled at on two separate occasions for failing to be there on high-risk passes. Both times, Terry tried to tell Howard to calm down.

That wasn't the only time Howard lost his cool. He was assessed his seventh technical foul of the postseason for going chest-to-chest with Golden State's Andrew Bogut after the two got tangled up (referee Ed Malloy issued double techs in the third quarter). That's the limit: With seven, you get suspended for the next playoff game.

Turns out Howard won't have a next playoff game, but it's amazing how quickly his smiles at referee rulings or opponent actions morph into real anger. That, again, is him being better with ease as opposed to adversity.

Howard wants only to swim downstream, same as in his longtime favorite movie, Finding Nemo.

He was made to feel special early on in life; his incredible size, strength and agility made him the classic youth basketball player to be coddled. "No matter how the season ends, I'm still a champion," Howard announced after the game. "I won't let anybody tell me anything different." 

Truth be told, there are no participation trophies at the end of the NBA season. Harden doesn't even get one for being MVP runner-up—or for making meaningful improvements in his defensive game this season.

For the Rockets to make the leap to actual champion, it's again going to have to be Harden getting better. He's already improved dramatically since Howard's arrival two years ago, yet the two of them aren't enough to be clear contenders.

Harden is actually a year and a half younger than Stephen Curry. The hope that Harden is more unstoppable next season isn't unfounded. He was already talking about that following the game and noting that the 13 turnovers offer him a lasting lesson of "valuing the ball a lot more, especially if I'm going to be doing a lot of ball-handling."

Whether Morey can bring in a significant someone to handle the ball some for Harden next season, it's not going to be Howard.

HOUSTON, TX - APRIL 18:   Dwight Howard #12 and James Harden #13 of the Houston Rockets wait on the court against the Dallas Mavericks during Game One in the Western Conference Quarterfinals of the 2015 NBA Playoffs on April 18, 2015 at the Toyota Center
Scott Halleran/Getty Images

Despite the differences between the two, their personalities have worked OK together: Harden's get-the-job-done stoicism has played well off Howard's animation, a dynamic seen before tipoff each night.

Before each game, Howard has a pre-tip tradition with Trevor Ariza, featuring Howard simulating a quarterback hike and throwing Ariza a football pass with the game ball—then doing the Heisman Trophy pose.

Howard has a pregame ritual with Harden, too.

Howard goes to midcourt and kicks off the team's shooting warm-up by grabbing balls off the rack. One by one, Howard launches glory-seeking hook shots from halfcourt while Harden stands down there at the basket and catches the misses. On the fifth and final half-court hook shot, Harden holds the rebound, waits and throws a lob pass as Howard trucks through the lane and leaps for a flashy dunk.

If they're adding something meaningful to their two-man act for the games next season, it's going to have to be Harden who puts in the work and brings it.

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

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