D12 warily facing an early playoff exit

McHale was clearly exasperated with his young team after the loss. They're so talented, it's a shame how costly these mistakes have been. But like Howard, he knows this team is young and still growing.

"Obviously, we all want to win now," Rockets general manager Daryl Morey told ESPN. "Our owner only cares about two things: his granddaughter and winning a title. Dwight is at that stage where there's nothing to accomplish but winning a title. I'm hungry; I'm in my eighth year and we've only advanced once. So while, logically, you know that younger teams that come together -- and we're the youngest team in the playoffs -- take longer to win. We logically get that, but we're all impatient emotionally."

Howard is doing his best to stifle that frustration. He took his time getting dressed after the game to collect his thoughts before sharing them publicly. He popped a stick of gum into his mouth as if to remind himself to hold his tongue. Negativity isn't what his teammates need right now. But they do need to find a sense of urgency or this is going to be over quickly.

"They don't understand it," Howard said, when asked if his teammates understand all that's at stake here. "But at the same time, that's why it takes [veteran] guys like Francisco [Garcia], Josh Powell, myself to let them know that nothing is promised.

"There's been guys that have been in the league for 15 years and didn't get a ring. It took Dirk [Nowitzki] to his 13th or 14th year to get a ring. So nothing's promised. You can't take any moment, any series, any team, any minute on the court for granted. You've got to go at it. That's the mindset. You've got to go at it and stay focused. We got to keep believing."

Howard's been saying that all year. But Howard is the Rockets' defensive captain, not their offensive leader. That falls to Harden, and it's clear they have yet to find their groove together on the offensive end. The chasm between Howard and Harden is even more striking when compared to the symmetry Portland's Damian Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge have already found in their two years together.

On defense, the divide is even larger. Howard has been a monster defensively in this series. He's not quite back to his defensive player of the year form, but he's getting there. And he's clearly frustrated by the lack of consistency at that end outside of Omer Asik and Beverley.

But if there's one thing these past two years have taught him, it's that nothing goes as you plan for it to go.

His career was nearly ended by a back injury. He went to L.A. to play alongside three future Hall of Famers and got swept in the first round. He left $30 million on the table to sign with Houston to play with a younger superstar in Harden but might get bounced from these playoffs after just five games.

"All I want to do is win. I understand how important it is," Howard said. "But I also understand that it's never a given that you make it to the Finals.

"Nothing is promised in this league. You can't let years slip away."

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