With season in peril, Houston needs Harden, Howard to step up and lead

If the Houston Rockets have any shot at the postseason, Dwight Howard and James Harden must be on the same page. Stacy Revere/Getty Images

James Harden and Dwight Howard's relationship is complex, yet perception reeks of something far worse than what the reality is.

The two Houston Rockets stars support each other and are friends, yet they can't do anything about what outsiders say about their partnership.

"I don't know what the perception is; the reality is we get along and we want to win," Harden told ESPN.

"People are always going to say what they want to say," Howard said. "But there's no need for me and him to worry about that. Our job is to grow and get better as a team and get better as individuals."

The duo will attempt to save Houston's sinking season from falling further apart. The Rockets (28-29) have 25 games and 49 days in which to do so.

Their relationship was borne from general manager Daryl Morey's dream of bringing two superstars together with a strong supporting cast was supposed to bring a title to Houston. It still might do so.

But Howard, 30, becomes a free agent this summer, so this could be his final trip with Harden, 26, wearing Rockets colors in the trek for a title together.

"It's important for us," Harden said. "It's a great opportunity for us to turn this season around, and we're going to do it and it's going to get done."

Opposites attract

One reason there's a perception that Howard and Harden don't get along is because of their personalities.

The pair can be so different. Take their music preferences, for instance. Howard loves playing Al Green, while Harden blasts Meek Mill.

Harden rarely engages in small talk with reporters and won't get too personal. Of course, he values family, as evident by his mother attending a road game in Phoenix and his brother going to games in Salt Lake City and Portland.

He walks into his home arena at the Toyota Center wearing Beats headphones singing loudly with the latest hip-hop blasting as his coach, J.B. Bickerstaff, talks with reporters outside the locker room.

Harden gives the impression that he's a loner, but he's sociable and likable. He jokes with reporters from time-to-time and in TV commercials displays a joyful presence. In pregame warm-ups, Harden attempts a series of shots from various places on the floor at near game speed. His fundamentals are near flawless, Rockets coaches say.

Howard is different. He's effusive. During a recent homestand, Howard's son was bouncing around the locker room, prompting one player to say, "He gets it from his daddy."

Howard is playful with everyone, even getting Harden and rookie Sam Dekker into the act. He listens to hip-hop and old-school R&B. His smile and positive outlook, regardless of the team situation, comes across like a motivational speaker. His pregame routine consists of free throw attempts, jump hooks, spins to the basket and playful banter with fans and teammates.

Yes Harden is fan-friendly in the sense that his trademark beard has given him marketability with devoted fans who wear fake beards to home and away games. But Howard seems more accessible to fans. For instance, Howard engages with them -- especially on the road -- giving his jersey and sneakers to a fan after nearly every game.

The early season losses wore on Howard. He expressed unhappiness with the level of play from his team, but he maintained a commitment to the group as a whole. As trade talk increased at the deadline, his mood was quiet, reserved. He was not traded, and Howard's mood is better.

Howard is open, trusting. Harden is guarded, needs to know who you are, what you are, before revealing his thoughts. "Yeah, I guess two opposites attract," Harden said. "I think its comfort level. You're around someone for a long periods of time you start to open up, you start to communicate in general."

Last week, after a victory in Phoenix, the two bonded over a song by Future playing from Howard's locker as Harden did a little dance.

Prior to that game, Howard and Harden had dinner in Phoenix, a meeting of the minds, to solve what troubles the Rockets. After the Friday night victory, Harden and Howard hung out together and took Trevor Ariza's cell phone and posed for a picture, posting it on Ariza's Instagram account.

"They do that all the time," Ariza said. "They're always taking my phone."

Each wears stylish clothes. Howard's T-shirts are playful, one time he wore a shirt from the movie "Step Brothers," which he said of the picture of the two actors on the front, "Me and James."

From the haircuts - both sport fauxhawks -- to their bodyguards, yeah, there are similarities.

"We do have similar tastes," Howard said. "When things don't go well, it's easy to point to the two guys that are the leaders of the team, and that's perfectly understandable. We got to take the good with the bad and we got to come together and lead this team. We got 25 games left, and we want to make the best of it, and we have to do what we can to get to the top."

Basketball issues

On the floor, however, is where issues arise. NBA.com reported recently that two seasons ago, after a first-round playoff loss to Portland, the pair texted Morey they wanted the other one traded. Morey said it wasn't true.

The next season, the Rockets reached the Western Conference Finals on the shoulders of Harden's MVP-caliber season, and Howard dominated in the postseason.

Morey kept the team basically together and has found failures around it now. He fired Kevin McHale as coach 11 games into the season, and rumors surfaced that Harden and Howard wanted the coach out. Multiple sources said Howard and Harden did not go to management asking for a coaching change.

"When things don't go well, it's easy to point to the two guys that are the leaders of the team and that's perfectly understandable. We we got to come together and lead this team." Dwight Howard

What is clear is if the Rockets are going to fix what ails them, they need more leadership from Howard and Harden.

"James and I had a really good talk before the break and I think we're more on the same page than we've ever been," Howard said. To be sure, the super duo of Harden and Howard has had its share of growing pains. In the loss to Utah on Tuesday, Harden sent a lob pass to Howard when Howard clearly was figuring on a shot attempt. that The ball hit the side of the rim and Harden jumped up upset at the missed play.

"They are brothers," Ariza said. "You're going to fight with your brothers, it happens."

"[Chemistry] is huge. If you don't have chemistry, a team won't succeed," said Suns center Tyson Chandler, a 14-year NBA veteran who has had high-profile teammates such as Carmelo Anthony and Dirk Nowitzki. "You don't have to like each other, you don't have to hang out with each other, but on the court you have to have chemistry."

Needing each other

Going into Thursday night's game, the Rockets are in ninth place, just a half game out of the last playoff spot in the Western Conference. The Rockets are dueling the Jazz and the Mavericks for the last two slots. To get there, they'll need Harden and Howard to produce. Quickly.

Harden said the dinner in Phoenix, regardless if it leads to victories or not, was vital.

"Very important," Harden said. "Communication is very important. Any friendship, relationship in life, it's hard to read minds. When you communicate and express yourself with how you feel, everything is on the table."

Hall of Fame wide receiver Michael Irvin once said players at his position are very needy. First, you need a quarterback to throw you the ball, you need a coach to call a play for you .... you need the defense to open up for you to make a play.

Likewise, Howard needs Harden, who commands the ball so much. Howard is averaging fewer than nine shot attempts per game, the lowest since his rookie season. When Harden defers to Howard, the Rockets are pretty good. The duo plays off each other so well, in wins and losses.

In Tuesday's loss at Utah, the Rockets were attempting a last second shot in overtime when Harden was double-teamed. He sent a pass to Ariza who missed his shot. But there was Howard, tipping the ball away to the corner for Jason Terry who missed the buzzer-beating jumper.

"It doesn't matter what people say, I'm always going to have his back and I'm sure he's going to have my back," Howard said. "People are always going to talk, but the biggest thing, which is always true, with every team you have to put your ego and pride to the side and do what's best for the team."

Indeed. But time is running out.