Harden, Howard and Rockets face uncertainty

OAKLAND, Calif. -- Before the Houston Rockets lost Game 2 of their first-round playoff series against the Golden State Warriors, James Harden arrived at Oracle Arena in a black SUV with his bodyguard, marketing rep and four friends.

He chose not to ride in either of Houston's two team buses, something he has done all season because he likes to be certain he arrives at a specific time before every game, despite how it might look to observers.

When Harden walked through the arena's metal detectors, he held out his toiletry bag for a security guard and, instead of placing his cellphone into a customary plastic box, he handed it to his own security guard. He didn't wait for his bag to be checked. Harden instead strolled toward the locker room with the knowledge that someone would get his bag and bring his phone to him.

It was such a diva-like arrival to a playoff game, and rather odd given how badly the Rockets need togetherness in a trying season that has seen them underachieve and face criticism that they are not on the same page.

And now with Game 5 coming Wednesday night back at Oracle, the Rockets face elimination against the defending champions. And despite having rallied last season from a 3-1 deficit to beat the Los Angeles Clippers in the West semifinals, such a rally appears doubtful based on the poor chemistry and inconsistency displayed of late. Though don't tell that to the Rockets.

"If you don't believe you can win, stay in Houston," Dwight Howard said. "Don't get on the plane."

Maybe so, but during this series, the Rockets have argued with one another on the court and on the bench. After the Game 4 loss in Houston, players could be heard yelling from outside the locker room.

It's no big surprise since this has often been a season of dysfunction. It starts with Harden and Howard, the team's two stars. They have tried to be friends -- Harden picked up Howard's tab for dinner in New York on his birthday. During dinner in Phoenix at the All-Star break, the two discussed their on-court issues.

But ultimately, the chemistry between the two hasn't been there. One team source said: "It's cordially bad."

Howard feels he's a star and should be respected in the locker room. Howard, known to be playful with media members, was distant over the last two months of the regular season. He was largely frozen out of the offense despite coaches and players saying he needs the ball.

In Game 4 against the Warriors, Howard took only five shots in the first half, and in the third quarter turned invisible. He scored his first fourth-quarter points during the series with 8:11 left. Asked why he didn't get more touches, Howard said: "You have to ask the appropriate people."

One of those appropriate people is Harden, a shooting guard, who handles the ball more than anybody else on the team. Harden has repeatedly said he wants to get Howard the ball, even playfully referring to him as "big fella."

But Howard's stature on the team is in question. There is a perception that several players are not happy with Howard based on a February team meeting, after which one person close to the Rockets said, "If you want the ball, you need to speak up about it. He lost players' respect."

One player offered a different view, saying he didn't mind if Howard spoke up or not. "We just need to play basketball," the player said.

Former Rockets coach Kevin McHale said last week on a Sirius XM Radio show hosted by Rick Mahorn and Jonathan Hood that Howard isn't the same player that he once was. "Throw it down to him occasionally," McHale said. "But if you throw it down to him on a steady diet, the poor guy just can't get down low and move anymore. I think that [his] back bothered him, his hips are tight from that and he just wasn't the same player."

Harden, who has the ear of Rockets owner Leslie Alexander and general manager Daryl Morey, is a mixture of many things. He's aloof, has a dry sense of humor and a passion for winning. His frustration over losing bothers him greatly.

While Howard is irked by not getting the ball as often as he would like, it is Harden who is dismayed by the center. He wishes Howard would demand the ball and not goof around so much. Howard's personality -- bubbly, friendly, warm -- often can rub guarded people such as Harden the wrong way. Howard jokes with fans during games and easily becomes frustrated with referees.

After picking up a fifth foul in Game 1, Josh Smith, who played AAU ball with Howard while growing up in Atlanta, pointed to his head. He was asking Howard to mentally stay in the game.

Howard can do wonderful things off the court. He hosted a blood drive for TNT announcer Craig Sager, who is battling cancer. But Howard can look uninterested during games.

In the Rockets' Game 2 loss to the Warriors, Howard was jogging up the floor and not making a strong effort to reach spots on the floor for post plays. After the game, Rockets interim coach JB Bickerstaff was asked if Howard looked disinterested.

"No, I don't think he was disinterested," Bickerstaff said. "I thought he was good on the glass. I thought he was running."

Howard is frustrated because he believes Harden doesn't respect him enough. Howard texts former teammates asking what can be done to solve the problems. That same poor dynamic between Harden and Howard, and the inconsistent play of others has hurt Bickerstaff, who took over 11 games into the season when Alexander fired McHale.

"The team was not responding to Kevin," Morey said at the time of the firing. "There is no time in the West."

With the Rockets' struggles, it makes it difficult for Alexander to give the job to Bickerstaff full time. The players respect Bickerstaff and his staff. But while communication between staff and players is good, things have gone awry on the court.

When asked before the series about the job Bickerstaff has done, Alexander told ESPN: "He's got a winning record, which is good from where he started from."

The Rockets will have a comprehensive list of coaches to view whenever the season ends. Bickerstaff, who remains in good standing with management, will be part of that conversation. Alexander and Morey believe that Harden will play a role in helping to hire a coach and potentially sign free agents.

Howard is not expected to have a role. It's expected that he will become a free agent and seek a new team. Orlando, Milwaukee, Portland and Charlotte are the favorites.

What's left for the Rockets is Harden, a star who needs to find a willing partner whom he respects to help him achieve his goal of winning a championship.

Unless the Rockets turn things around immediately, this will go down as a season of disappointment. It will lead to more questions than answers about the future of a franchise that was so bright just a year ago, when it reached the Western Conference finals.