D12 warily facing an early playoff exit

Dwight Howard

PORTLAND, Ore. -- Dwight Howard came to Houston last summer to win, not to wait. After two nightmarish seasons in Orlando and Los Angeles that left his reputation in tatters and cast him further away from a title than ever, he'd come to understand that the only salvation, the only deodorant for all that had gone wrong for him since that Finals appearance in 2009, was to win.

He couldn't talk his way out of it. He couldn't charm his way out of it. It didn't even matter if he got full credit for resurrecting these Rockets or if James Harden did. If they won, all of it -- the negativity, the clashes with coaches in Orlando and L.A., the head-butts with Kobe Bryant, all of it would be expunged from his record.

He did not come for another first-round playoff exit. But after Sunday night's 123-120 overtime loss to the Portland Trail Blazers, he and the Rockets find themselves down 3-1 and facing elimination heading into Game 5 in Houston.

For a team that came into the season with visions of contending for a championship, it would be a staggeringly early exit. One that would be hard for all involved to digest. Howard wasn't allowing himself to go there yet. Not with another game still to play. Not when three of these four games have been decided in overtime and the Blazers are winning by a combined seven points over the four games.

This has been an achingly close series thus far. One that has been decided mostly by Portland's poise and cohesiveness in big moments, compared to the Rockets' sloppy mistakes and lack of consistent aggression. On some level Howard understands that Houston is the youngest of all the teams in the playoffs. That it's going to take time for this team to grow up. That maybe the Rockets simply aren't ready this year.

It doesn't mean he has to accept it, however. And as this series has gone on, he's had fight back the frustration that's boiling inside him as he watches the late-game turnovers, lack of commitment to defense and inconsistency in the Rockets' style of play on offense.

"We don't have time. Time is not on our side," Howard said after the loss. "We have to really value each possession. I've been saying that since day one."

He wasn't specifically referring to any one play, although  Jeremy Lin's turnover near the end of regulation or  Patrick Beverley's turnover at the end of overtime were good places to start.

"When we have a plan, you've got to stick with it," Rockets coach Kevin McHale said of Lin's turnover with 29 seconds remaining in regulation and Houston clinging to a two-point lead. "When we got the rebound, we said unless we had a clear break, we were going to take a timeout. Jeremy gets the defensive rebound and dribbles it out, and we lose the ball. I mean, I don't know, we couldn't be any clearer than a clear break or timeout.

"It's not his fault. He made basketball plays. It's just saying, that was typical of what we did tonight. And we had some defensive times where we just stood there and watched guys shoot the ball. We can't do that. We gotta get up on em."

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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