By Fran Blinebury, NBA.com
PORTLAND, Ore. — Damian Lillard’s “Rip Ciiiitttyyy!” shout was still bouncing off the walls and his dagger remained stuck right in their gut when Rockets team owner Leslie Alexander and club president Tad Brown stood in a back hallway of the Moda Center, heads down, eyes searching.
For what? For whom? Carmelo Anthony? Chris Bosh? LeBron James?
Will a few more high-dollar free agents finally get the Rockets out of the first round of the playoffs for only the second time since 1997? Is the idea to buy up every available big name in the NBA so there will be nobody left to do what the Blazers consistently did in the fourth quarter?
That is, perform down the stretch.
Clutch City, indeed. The Rockets routinely treated the fourth quarters like a wad of cash in the pocket of a drunken sailor and wound up with the same kind of what-happened hangover.
“This is the worst feeling I’ve ever had in my life,” Chandler Parsons said after he watched Lilllard run away from him in the last 0.9 seconds and into NBA lore.
Parsons, of course, is just 25 and quite likely too young yet to comprehend that if a basketball game is the worst loss you’ve ever suffered, then life has been pretty darned good.
Dwight Howard, on the other hand, just finished his 10th NBA season no closer to a championship than when he left Southwest Atlanta Christian Academy.
“It hurts,” Howard said. “We can’t grow anymore. We go home.”
The Rockets go home to an offseason of having to wonder if the combination of Howard and James Harden will ever enough to take the franchise back to the glory years of truly contending — and winning — or if they are simply pair of celebrities in search of a lead dog who can pull their wagon to a championship.
Harden is now working on three straight years and three straight series of shrinking in the playoffs. His 34 points in Game 6 was the first time he came close to looking like a front-line star. In his last three playoff series — vs. Miami in 2012, OKC in 2013 and now Portland — the only thing more bedraggled than his beard has been his shooting percentage. Is the playoff air, when teams can scheme against him for seven games and employ elite level defenders, too thin for Harden? He hardly ever shoulders the burden of responsibility or the mantle of leadership.
Howard has worked diligently with Hakeem Olajuwon, with the coaching staff, with anybody offering help, to improve his game and yet the coin toss odds on having him at the free-throw line and his happy-go-lucky persona will always leave questions until or unless he gets it all done.
“We didn’t win, so in my mind having a good regular season is nothing,” Howard said. “You’re sitting at home watching another team hold up a trophy. That’s what we all play for. So it hurts too be going home early. It’s hurts to be watching somebody [else] holding up the trophy. We wanted a chance to get it this season. This should just push us next season.
“I know it’s going to make me continue in the gym, continue to get better and also push these young guys so they can understand that you can’t take these moments for granted. Nothing’s promised. The playoffs aren’t promised. Rings aren’t promised. You gotta go out there and earn it.”
The bashing of coach Kevin McHale will sound like a bass drum throughout the summer and maybe it will be proven that he is not the one to guide them down the championship path. But McHale did not lose Game 6. He did not fail to tell his players not to give up anything but a 3-point shot in the last 0.9 seconds. He cannot turn back the clock and play like the Hall of Famer he was during all those years in Boston.
Sweeping McHale out of the door is not the answer. The team responds to him. They play for him. He has a year left on his contract at the team’s option and so you give it to him with a last chance.
The championing of Jeremy Lin as a creative cross between Kobe Bryant, Magic Johnson and Leonardo Da Vinci by his cult following will persist. Lin is a capable, hard-working player who has proven he belongs in the league. But he is not transcendent and, if the Rockets are going to make a big play in free agency this summer, he and Omer Asik will both be gone to make room under the salary cap.
“It’s a tough loss, but something we’ve got to learn from,” said Howard. “Like I said the whole series, we can’t take any possessions off. We can’t relax. Every bucket counts. Portland came in and played with a lot of confidence.
“We’ve got a great nucleus of guys. Everybody has to come back next season and see the mistakes we made this year as a team and try to learn from them so next year we don’t have situations like this.
“You’ve got to play with confidence. You can’t relax. Some of the guys on our team, including myself at times, we relaxed on the floor. Nothing is easy. I’ve been to the Finals. I’ve been to the Eastern Conference finals. I’ve been to the top and it’s not easy getting there.
“You’ve got to make everything count. I think that’s a big lesson for us all. No matter who we play, no matter what happens in the regular season, you can’t take any team for granted.
“Portland came out and played from the first game. … Those guys played together. Just watching their mentality on the floor, it was good. It was a seasoned team. So there’s a lot of things we can learn from this series and hopefully come back next year and be a lot better.”