April 28, 2014

2014 NBA Playoffs: Rockets, Howard must pull it together as season is on the brink

Dwight Howard ventured off to Houston this offseason in hopes of reclaiming his position as undoubtedly the league's best big man and one of it's best players. Two consecutive horrific seasons in Orlando and Los Angeles made this seem far fetched at a point, as Howard's image came undone through constant pouting, indecisiveness and clashes with Kobe Bryant.

Howard figured in Houston he'd elude the colliding of egos, frustrations and gut wrenching losses that were prevalent in his time with the Lakers. He assumed domination was soon to come in H-Town, as the media and fans branded Harden and Howard as the next great and or dominant duo. 
Now, after falling to Portland 123-120 on Sunday night which puts his team in a 3-1 hole in the first round matchup, Howard is wondering how he and Harden can claim that cohesion Lillard and Aldridge are so greatly benefiting from in this series. 

In just two years, the Portland Trailblazers, and more specifically Damian Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge resemble a force that has seem to been wrecking havoc on the league for nearly a decade. The duo's uniformity is something Howard and Harden must mimic perfectly if they want to keep those championship aspirations afloat.

The Blazers have edged the Rockets by a combined seven points, as three of the four contests have leaked into overtime. The poise, trust, and control Portland has been displaying in these crucial moments is a huge reasoning behind their commanding series lead.

The Rockets have been swimming in troubled waters, specifically in big time moments where they have faltered the most. Instead of clean, relaxed and promising play, Houston has been hindered by questionable decisions and sloppy mistakes.

ESPN's Marc Stein tweeted some interesting stats about the Rockets and their crunch time difficulties. Stein highlighted that Houston is shooting 12 for 46 (26%) in this series during "crunch time" (score less than 5, with five minutes to go in the 4th quarter or OT.)

Also in crunch time, the Rockets are shooting 1 for 15 on three pointers. 

With 28 seconds left in the fourth quarter of game four, Jeremy Lin's unawareness costed Houston a possession as they led 104-102. Lin began to dribble up court, as Portland veteran Mo Williams came up from behind and swiped the ball from Lin. This mishap eventually led to Williams drilling a three pointer with 18 seconds left and giving Portland a 105-104 advantage.

In the overtime session of game four, Patrick Beverley's turnover after two made Mo Williams free throws stripped away Houston's chance of tying the contest. Beverley sillily dribbled into two defenders, giving Wes Matthews a chance to snatch the ball away, disrobing Houston of their confidence in the process.

It took Troy Daniels (a D-League call up) emergence to help Houston pry one game from Portland. Although the margin of victory has been slim for the Blazers, they still lead the series as all hope seems to be dashing from the Rockets and their fan base.

In the playoffs, the method of victory doesn't matter. What does matter is the team being awarded a victory after the final buzzer sounds. Each win, puts a player in a more favorable position to accomplish their life long dream: winning an NBA championship. When pairing up with the Houston Rockets, Howard was sure that this dream would soon enough become a reality.

He was sure the nightmares, the storm of controversy and criticism would soon conclude as a bigger and brighter future was promised. As of right now, the clouds are dancing over Dwight, mercilessly, as his teams failures are bringing the enemies he's established in the last two years triumph.

Howard is contributing in every way imaginable for this Rockets team, who happens to be the youngest out of all teams participating in this years postseason. Dwight is averaging 27 points, 14 rebounds and 3 blocks a game through the four games, doing his best to anchor his squad in every way possible. 

He's been consistent on defense, providing head coach Kevin McHale with maximum energy and effort. It's not Howard's fault that outside of himself, Patrick Beverley, Omer Asik and Chandler Parsons, there is no regularity on the defensive end for Houston. It's just laziness and questionable effort. 

The biggest culprit is James Harden, who's defensive woes may be as glaring as any starting guard in this league. At the end of game two, Harden trotted back on defense with the game in it's waining moments. This allowed Blazers guard Wesley Matthews to break free and hit a layup, putting the game out of reach for Houston.

Harden usually pitches in offensively in a major way, as his ability to shred defenses with a bevy of moves, get to the rim and drawl fouls overwhelms defenders. Harden, who is in the midst of an unexpected disappearing act has been downright horrific on offense during this series, shooting 35% from the field and 26% from three. 

James is averaging the same amount of points in this series as Howard, but is taking nearly eight more shots to do so (Howard 18.3 field goal attempts per game, Harden 25.8.) 

Luckily for the Rockets, they have one last opportunity to rectify this situation. On Wednesday night, the Blazers and Rockets will duel once more. Portland looking to claim supremacy and move onto  the second round, Houston looking for an opportunity to lengthen it's season and keep those championship dreams alive.

The Rockets will be at home, as the sure to be packed house will ooze a mammoth amount of energy and emotion. If and or when the game gets close, the Rockets must harness this energy in a positive manner, as their end of game slip-ups has them in this tough position. 

For Dwight Howard, corralling this energy could be the difference between continuing to wage war on the league in the pursuit of a championship, or simply another first round exit and another offseason cluttered with doubts and frustrations. The response given by Dwight, Harden and these Rockets may be a testament of their commitment and talent, or a ghastly display of their inexperience and youth. 

Do the Rockets have any chance to comeback? Share thoughts and opinions with me on Twitter (@wcboyer24) and continue to support The Basketball Society. 

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