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Rocket Fuel

Painful playoff loss should provide Rockets ample motivation for offseason improvement

PORTLAND - Damian Lillard delivered a heaping helping of heartache to Houston Friday night. He also gave the Rockets all the fuel they should ever require as they prepare to embark upon a summer that will prove crucial toward determining where they go from here.

When General Manager Daryl Morey huddles up with Houston’s basketball operations department and brainstorms ways to improve the team during the offseason, Lillard’s shot will be there.

When Dwight Howard hits the gym to continue refining and fine-tuning his game, Lillard’s shot will be there.

And when James Harden dedicates himself to becoming a better two-play better, Lillard’s shot will most definitely be there.

The same goes for everyone associated with the Rockets organization. There is no salve strong enough to remove the sting Houston’s players, coaches and fans are feeling right now. Heartbreak, sleepless nights and haunting what-ifs are going to be the norm for the immediate future. But eventually that pain must be transformed into motivation.

A playoff series as agonizingly close as this one inevitably comes down to the little things; the fine details that so frequently get overlooked in our haste to distill the outcome to a few highlights here and there. The difference often lies within the margins. And for the Rockets to go from very good to great, improvement along the periphery is essential. Box-outs and close-outs. Execution and attention to detail. Communication and accountability. The message should be clear: Master as much as possible, and leave precious little to the whims of chance.

21 years ago, a Rockets team that won 53 games during the regular season similarly saw its playoff run come to an end in the Pacific Northwest when the Seattle SuperSonics knocked off Houston 103-100 in overtime of Game 7. The hurt and heartache were no less then than what the club is experiencing now. You already know what happened next: Instead of being the end of the road, that loss served as a launching pad of sorts for the greatest two-year run in franchise history.

Pain is miserable. It can be searing, excruciating and occasionally unbearable. But its core purpose is to alert the body that something’s not quite right, that repair and healing must take place. It demands attention. Likewise, the Rockets must take heed and take action in response to their present suffering. They will. This is an opportunity to fortify and to focus. To take a long look in the mirror. To be honest. To be humble. To be hungry. To be real. Then and only then can the kind of restoration that makes one stronger than ever actually occur in earnest.

“It hurts to be going home early,” said a dejected Dwight Howard. “It hurts to sit and watch somebody hold up a trophy and I won’t have a chance to get it this season. It should just push us for next season. I know it’s going to make me continue to get in the gym, continue to get better and also push these young guys, letting them understand that we can’t take these moments for granted. Nothing is promised. The playoffs aren’t promised. Rings aren’t promised. You’ve got to go out there and earn it and it takes a lot of hard work.”

Rest assured Lillard’s shot and the resulting Portland pandemonium will be ringing in Howard’s ears every time he hits the practice court this summer. The same undoubtedly holds true for each of his teammates as well. Channeled properly, that pain can eventually be transformed into something positive. Heartbreak doesn’t have to be the end. As Houston discovered two decades ago, sometimes it’s simply a necessary stop that sets the stage for bigger and better things.

The memory of what took place during that haunting nine-tenths of a second promises to be forever seared into the mind of every player wearing Rockets red that night. But while the hurt will linger, what matters most of all is the response. Resolve must be strengthened. Effort must be redoubled. Sacrifices must be made.

There is no path to greatness that does not include pain, and Damian Lillard obviously dished out plenty in Houston’s direction Friday night. But in the process he also provided the Rockets with a road map for how to best avoid a similar fate going forward. Houston’s players, coaches and management must push themselves like never before. Every extra wind sprint ran, weight lifted, shot hoisted and video viewed this summer should be easier to stomach due to the memory of what transpired Friday night and the torturous emotion it provoked. No one in Houston’s despondent post-game locker room would ever willfully choose to feel that way again. And with the Rockets’ offseason now officially underway, the time has come to start putting in the tireless work required to help ensure that they won’t.