It was halftime of Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals, and the Boston Celtics were beating the Orlando Magic, 41-32. I knew I had at least 10-15 minutes to kill before the second half, so I decided to call my father to get his take on what had transpired during the first two quarters. I placed the television on mute, and we both proceeded to channel our inner Hubie Brown, and get knee deep in basketball talk.
Halfway through our conversation, I noticed a segment on ESPN, where Dwight Howard as Clark Kent, was interviewing Dwight Howard as Superman. Its the kind of fluff piece that one would expect to see early in the season, when the games mean much less, than they do in May or June during the Eastern Conference finalss. It was also the type of segment that was ill-timed, considering the player in question had just seven points at the half, and was clearly getting bullied in the paint by Kendrick Perkins and Rasheed Wallace.
My father made the keen observation that Howard seemed hell-bent on becoming a basketball celebrity, and not a better basketball player. I half-heartedly tried to defend Howard, by telling my father how Howard’s numbers were excellent and he was a fresh off his second defensive player of the year award in a row.
My father’s retort was, “Could you see Kareem[Abdul-Jabbar] doing an interview like this with himself?”
I shut down my argument.
Howard went on to finish with 13 points and 12 rebounds in a loss, but he was completely flummoxed by the strong play of Perkins and Wallace.
In Game 2 he came back with a strong 30-point performance, but his team still lost. And in Game 3, Howard put up an embarrassing stat line of seven points and seven rebounds in yet another loss.
Critics of Howard wondered–much like my father had at halftime of Game 1- if Howard was serious about taking his attitude and his game to that proverbial next level.
Howard’s behavior in all three of Orlando’s losses was predictable. He was indecisive with this moves on the offensive end of the floor, and he was a bit too overzealous on defense. When a foul was called him on him, he would make exaggerated hand gestures and facial expressions to show his disgust. At one point even Vince Carter, a virtual no-show in this series thus far, was giving Howard pep talks on how to turn things around after Game 3.
As much as I criticize Carter and his inability to make a mark with his game on the court, I must give him full credit in the motivational speaker department.
In Game 4 on Monday night, Howard played like an angry man with something to prove to himself, his teammates and most importantly the Celtics. When he got the ball in the post, he quickly made his moves without hesitation. He used hooks, up and under moves, and his patented power dunks to score 32 points.
On the defensive end of the floor, he played smarter, he didn’t get frustrated or whine to the refs, and he grabbed 16 rebounds and blocked four shots.
At one point, he and Kevin Garnett got tangled up, and instead of walking away, Howard walked towards him as if he was ready for a confrontation. Although he was quickly whisked away by his teammates, Howard, who has never been known as an enforcer or an intimidating figure, was clearly trying to stand up to Garnett and send a message.
Howard and the Magic won a hard fought game in overtime, 96-92, but Howard wasn’t done flexing his muscle.
With three minutes and change elapsed in the first quarter of Game 5, Howard took a pass from Jameer Nelson off a pick and roll. He took one dribble, knocked over Paul Pierce (a good no-call from the refs), and dunked the ball with authority. Instead of just running up the court the way he usually does after a dunk, Howard lingered for a bit and glared at Pierce (who was still on the ground) and Garnett (who was helping him up).
That dunk tied the game at 8-8, and it certainly did not seem like a big deal at first glance. But the Magic seemed to feed off the aggressive tone Howard had set early on, and that had been lacking in the first three games of the series.
But to me, it became clear that Howard was intent on playing aggressive and with attitude, with two minutes left in the third quarter. Howard went up for a routine post move, but an over matched Paul Pierce was forced to grab and foul him. Toward the tail end of the play, Garnett added in a hard foul for good measure.
The old Dwight Howard would have put his hands straight up, complained to the refeeres, and walked to the foul line, sans any semblance of confrontation. On this night, an ornery Howard walked right up to Garnett’s face, looked him right in the eye and said something–presumably about Garnett’s unnecessary actions–and then walked to the foul line and hit one of two free throws.
Garnett is usually giving out, not receiving that type of treatment, but on this night Howard played that role and played it well. Howard finished with 21 points, 10 rebounds, five blocks and two steals, and the Magic won in a blowout 113-92.
After trailing in this series 3-0, the Magic cut it to 3-2, and the meaner, more focused Howard, has played a significant role in that reversal of fortune.
When Game 6 of the series resumes tomorrow night in Boston, and the Magic will almost surely face a hostile environment, as the crowd tries to cheer on their stumbling team. Nelson will need to continue to penetrate, Rashard Lewis aggressiveness will be key, and even Brandon Bass will need another strong performance off the bench. But ultimately, a meaner, more focused Dwight Howard is a must for the Magic to be victorious and force a Game 7.
Not even my father can refute that.