Things happen over a career. There are moment of grace and moments of sorrow. There are losses that should have been wins and losses that you deserve. All of that is a given for a professional athlete, it is what you sign up for. And yet with all of the pendulum swings of a NBA career, with all of the Dwight Howard waffling and Dwight Howard nonsense, with all of his dominance in the paint and earthquake trembling dunks, it has never happened to him like this, this stunning and quick stab in the heart. The world stopping and then the world collapsing. What do you do when you can’t take a breath, when you have been suffocated? Dwight Howard stood there. He was bent over as if his legs were broken and he could not walk. His hands, empty now, had nothing to do anymore, there was no ball to rebound and put back into the net, no jump hook to arc over Robin Lopez’s outstretched arms. There was only frozen shock because in nine tenths of a second the worst thing happened to Dwight Howard that has ever happened to Dwight Howard in his playoff career. It was worse than in 2009 when he was beaten by the Lakers in the NBA Finals. It was worse than in 2012 when he was ejected and swept out of the playoffs and out of Los Angeles. It was worse than in 2010 when he lost at Boston-game 6- in the Eastern Conference Finals. It was worse than in 2011 when he had 46 points and 19 rebounds in a game one loss to Atlanta. Because in one moment he was going back to Houston for game 7. Chandler Parsons rebound and put back gave the Rockets the lead. Dwight was blessed. And in the next moment Damian Lillard sprinted free of Chandler Parsons and drilled a game winner. Dwight Howard, the high school kid who fell from grace and then was redeemed, in that one sterling moment, he was devastated.
Last summer, after a playoff exit, his third in a row, Dwight’s future was waiting for him. Yet even that was not what it seemed. The salary structure of NBA teams and its restrictions narrow where free agents can go. In a good year 5 or 6 teams have the money to take on a max player. Usually it is only 1 or 2 teams. Dwight chose the Rockets over the Lakers, Warriors and Mavericks. He cited the youthfulness of their team. He cited Hakeem Olajuwon. He cited Kevin McHale. He was leaving seriousness and entering casualness. James Harden was a young player creating a name and reputation for himself. Chandler Parsons was a poor man’s Lamar Odom, someone who could dribble the ball, shoot and play four positions. Jeremy Lin was quick to the rim and had an efficient perimeter shot.
After the nightmare in L.A. Dwight was nostalgic for the offense of Stan Van Gundy. Van Gundy created a system just for Dwight. Dwight was in the paint surrounded by shooters. The offense worked through him. Either he could post up his man or dish it to the perimeter. But Houston did not play that way. James Harden was a ball stopper. Chandler Parsons needed to touch the ball on the perimeter. Jeremy Lin created. None of them knew how to play with a big man, how to use him for their gain. But Dwight never considered any of this when he signed with Houston. There was no understanding that the Rockets perimeter players, Harden, Parsons, Lin, were the worst defenders In the NBA.
It was bound to happen. Houston’s terrible defenders were going to cost them a game. It happened last night. All series long both teams, both Portland and Houston, took a lot of jump shots. Portland did it from the mid range with LaMarcus Aldridge and the three point line. As a rule, Houston forbids mid range shots and only arcs three pointers. Each team was willing to allow the other team to shoot and to make and to shoot and to miss. But last night there were traps and contested shots and steals and offensive rebounds. Everyone knew what was at stake. Each team had their worst moment. For the Rockets it happened on the very last play. It happened because of the defensive woefulness of Chandler Parsons and James Harden. Setting up the play the Rockets didn’t switch everything. It was their first mistake. Parsons was guarding Lillard. That was the second mistake. They did not talk. That was their third mistake. They were not willing to help. That was their fourth mistake. As Lillard received the ball and sprinted to open space Chandler Parsons was left in the dust. James Harden, watching the play unfold, did not leave his man to help once he saw Parsons was already beaten. The Rockets had a foul to give. All Harden had to do was to rake Lillard’s arm and foul him. But he did not move, he stood there next to his man, watching, as everyone in Portland was watching, as everyone at home was watching. Damian Lillard arced a wide open three that settled into the net. Later, Dwight Howard said he did not see the play. His focus was on LaMarcus Aldridge.
It was a gut wrenching way to lose. Dwight had put so much into this year. He was finally healthy. He dominated all six playoff games. He made his free throws. He made his post ups. He kept his emotions in check. After ten years in the league you can still learn lessons. It is a perimeter game now defined by point guards and wing players. More often than not, winning moments and losing moments happen on the part of the court where Dwight has no impact. The players who are responsible are the players without instinct on defense on how to stop players. The Rockets love to score. They loved to score last year when Dwight joined them. They loved to score this year; they were second in the league. But the magical talents of James Harden and Chandler Parsons are over exaggerated only in this way: they are one way players. Expecting execution on defense to save a victory is like asking a winged bird to fly.
Lebron James has been the best player in the playoffs so far. Dwight Howard has been the second. He has redeemed himself. He is still that player who can deliver under pressure. He destroyed the Blazers in the fourth quarter. He carried the Rockets to what appeared to be a victory. Until that moment when he could just stand there and watch. He rationalized it afterwards. Or perhaps he was trying to make sense of how it could happen, how his teammates could let Damian Lilliard shoot an uncontested shot. He mentioned their youth. He mentioned not understanding a basic playoff principle: every possession matters. He mentioned the learning experience. And yet there is an irony to all of it, to Dwight in his brilliant white shirt explaining the unexplainable and exuding a maturity that has not been associated with him for the past three years. He was melancholy and a lot of the time he spoke with his head down as if to look up would be to cry. Playoff opportunities don’t come around often. In Dwight’s career he has been to the NBA Finals. He has been to the Eastern Conference Finals. He has lost in the semi-final round. And he has been eliminated in the first round three straight years. He had wisdom to offer even as he grieved. He repeated again the growing pains of the young. But missing in all of it was self blame: he chose this. He selected a young team on purpose. He said he wanted to have fun. He did not enjoy Los Angeles. But players who have won titles know and coaches who have won titles know: losing is not fun. It will be a long summer for Dwight Howard.