HOUSTON – Within the carnage of this colossal collapse, Dwight Howard marched into the losing locker room and proclaimed to these seething, stunned Houston Rockets: One game, fellas. One loss. Here was his message, and no one knew of its hollowness better than the franchise center.
Across the seasons, Howard has to come to understand the most important lesson in leadership. The Rockets won't listen to the franchise star now as much they'll watch him. In crisis and calm, this is forever the burden of a superstar.
For Howard, this has long been something of a lost cause in his career. Never mind that James Harden played the most prominent part in the Rockets' Game 1 loss, everyone understands the ultimate blame of an early exit from these playoffs will be thrust onto last summer's biggest free agent.
"As a leader of this team, I can say whatever I want to these guys, but they're not going to follow me unless I go out and do it now," Howard said.
All hell broke loose in Clutch City on Sunday night, Game 1 toppling these Rockets like a tsunami reaching shore. The Rockets lost Game 1 in overtime, a 122-120 defeat that turned out to be a testament to the Blazers' spirit and staying power, and, yes, their superstar talent.
Houston lost a 10-point lead with four minutes left in regulation, lost home-court advantage in this Western Conference playoff series, and maybe most frightening of all, lost irrepressible point guard Patrick Beverley to a re-aggravation of his knee injury. He gets an MRI on his right knee on Monday morning, and the loss of Beverley could make Blazers point guard Damian Lillard impossible to stop for Houston.
Rockets general manager Daryl Morey walked the Toyota Center corridors with an ashen face late Sunday, devastated over the defeat and well aware Howard and Harden hadn't been brought together to lose a first-round playoff series.
Make no mistake: The Rockets' stars lost to the Blazers' stars on Sunday night. LaMarcus Aldridge delivered a performance for the ages, 46 points and 18 rebounds until fouling out in overtime. In his professional playoff debut, Lilliard had 31 points and closed out the Rockets in the final minutes of regulation and overtime.
Once the Blazers resorted to the Hack-a-Howard strategy, his painful procession of misses on the free-throw line brought Portland back into the game. Once the lead started slipping away, the Rockets' offense unraveled – with Harden unloading wayward shot upon wayward shot. He missed 20 of 28 shots, including a final chance at the buzzer to end the game.
"Quick shots," Howard would say later. "We didn't value possessions."
History has made Howard understand this truth: No one will care he had 27 points, 15 rebounds and four blocked shots. He's chasing championships now – chasing playoff victories, for starters – and this was the kind of loss that promised to attach itself to him.
"We played awful – we couldn't have played any worse – and we still should've won the game," Chandler Parsons told Yahoo Sports. "We're pissed off. We had it won, and we gave the game away."
This is a star's sport, and they're ultimately judged most harshly in defeat. For those who remember Howard at the end of the San Antonio Spurs' sweep of the Los Angeles Lakers in April a year ago, they remember him getting himself thrown out of Game 4. They remember a most ignoble departure out of Staples Center, out of the Lakers.
Now, Howard has come to Houston for redemption – has come for championship validation – and these Rockets still have a long, long way to go. Nevertheless, this devastating defeat had Howard promising to deliver them out of a dark night and into the light of morning.
"No panic," Howard said.
One game, one heartbreaking loss, and this had never been part of the plan in Houston. Portland stole Game 1 of these Western Conference quarterfinals, but the Rockets' franchise star insists the Blazers didn't come and take the Rockets' spirit, too.
There were no great speeches out of Howard for this great loss, only an unspoken promise that things had changed with him, that all these young Rockets could come to the gym on Monday and Tuesday and see for themselves: back to work, back to the grind. All hell broke loose in Houston on Sunday night, and Howard had come to be the voice of reason, the voice of experience.
All these years, all this talk, and Dwight Howard sounded humbled to understand the truth: All eyes on him now, all ears elsewhere. Just one game, just one loss. Watch him, and he promises you'll see for yourself.