Superman is back. At least for Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals Superman donned his cape again and ruled the skies with an irreplaceable presence. For the Los Angeles Lakers that’s a good thing. Dwight Howard, non-existent in the Lakers’ dismantling of the Houston Rockets, got in on the action against the Denver Nuggets with a little bit of flair.
Because of the Rockets’ small-ball offense, Howard and fellow big man JaVale McGee were both resorted to playing cheerleaders on the bench cheering their team on as the Lakers took down James Harden, Russell Westbrook, and the rest of the Houston squad in five games in the second round of the playoffs.
“Of course, me and JaVale would like to play; we wanted to play, but it’s the lineup that our coaches felt was going to be the best for us to win, and we did what was best for the team,” Howard said. “But me and JaVale always… we stay ready. We train as hard as anybody and we know that when we step on the floor, you know, we have one job to do and that’s to dominate and that’s what we most look forward to.”
Howard was more than ready against the Nuggets. Howard came ready with the same physical presence that made him a three-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year and a five-time All-NBA first team member.
While the Lakers’ Game 1 126-114 win against the Nuggets was highlighted by the scoring dominance of Anthony Davis (37 points, 10 rebounds) and the all-around subtle brilliance of Lebron James (15 points, 12 assists, six rebounds), Howard served up a reminder to everyone in the building and on national television that he still has the tools to be effective when he needs to be.
In just a little over 16 minutes of playing time, Howard scored 13 points, pulled down a couple of rebounds (3), and blocked two shots in the Lakers’ opening game salvo. Those numbers don’t tell the complete story of how Howard’s play influenced the flow of the game. Denver center Nikola Jokic had his way against the Los Angeles Clippers as he often shot over the top of much shorter defenders.
That would not be the case against the Lakers in Game 1.
“They are really good shot blockers,” Jokic said after the game. “They are attacking us off of the rebound. We just need to match that. I think we can, again, do collectively a better job of rebounding the ball a little bit better. And when someone is going to block the shot, just find the open guy and make yourself an open guy.”
Jokic will likely not have it so easy against the Lakers which boasts of having legitimate big men in Howard, Davis, and JaVale McGee, all of whom can cause him problems on the offensive end. Howard scored eight of his point totals in a pivotal third quarter when the Lakers ran away from the Nuggets with a 33-20 period advantage.
“Big minutes,” Davis said of Howard’s play. “He played extremely well. he was physical with Jokic, made his free throws. He was great in the pick-and-roll game. He was talking on defense. It just speaks volumes of he is as a person and as a player. Not to play in our last series against Houston and then come out and be ready to play in the Western Conference Finals…that speaks volumes of who he is and our team. Guys stay ready. Guys prepare and put in the work so when their time is called they are ready. He came in and played huge minutes for us tonight and helped us get the win.”
A dunk here, taking a charge there, Howard’s play during his 16 minutes of play so frustrated Jokic that the second-team All-NBA player got into foul trouble (five fouls) and had a quiet 21 points for the Nuggets.
Prior to the Lakers playing Denver, Howard said he enjoys matching up against Jokic.
“I like him a lot. [He] plays under control. He doesn’t let anybody rush him,” Howard said. “He gets to his spots. He makes plays for his teammates, rebounds, He does a little bit of everything. He’s a complete player. I love playing against him.”
At 34, in his 16th season playing in the NBA, Howard has seen a lot of things. He’s been there and done that. A veteran of many postseason battles, Howard once led the Orlando Magic to the NFL Finals, only be taken out in five games by Kobe Bryant and the Lakers in 2009. He would eventually find himself becoming a Laker when he hooked with the Purple and Gold, signing on to play for the 2012-13 season.
That marriage lasted a year. Now in his second stint with the Lakers, Howard seems to be content with being a role player and fitting in whenever the Lakers call his number. It is a much different Howard than the celebratory welcoming party when he and Brooklyn Nets coach Steve Nash joined Bryant on the Lakers. What’s not different is the type of ferocity that Howard plays with.
Jokic and Denver got an up-close view of Howard’s raw intensity in Game 1.
“We want to take it one game at a time,” Howard said after a team practice before Game 1. “We know what our goals are, but we know that we can’t look too far ahead. [We have to] play every game like it’s our last and enjoy this moment.”
Denver coach Mike Malone had high praise for all of the Lakers’ bigs, especially Howard.
“He came in and played well,” Malone said of Howard. “Obviously, they started JaVale and came in with Morris first. They were playing small, and then when they inserted Dwight into the game, I thought his size, his physicality, his athleticism, he made a huge contribution to their game. He gave them great energy on both ends of the floor. You look for the game: 16 minutes, 13 points, two blocks, two steals. So he came in, did a good job on Nikola. He’s guarded Nikola well in the past. And give him credit. He was ready to go tonight and he helped impact the game for them.”
This kumbayah moment is good for Howard in more ways than one. First, it gives him the opportunity to be more engaged during a game because he’s actually getting playing time. Because of the offensive challenge that Jokic brings to the table, the series pretty much dictates that the Lakers play the length game with Howard, McGee and Davis.
Secondly, the more activity he has on the court the better for his mindset. Before the euphoria behind his Game 1 performance, Howard talked about the loneliness of being sequestered in a hotel and life in the bubble. The Houston series added more complexity to that issue, Howard said.
“It was extremely hard, but I know that my teammates still needed me no matter if I would play 10 minutes or no minutes just bringing the energy,” Howard said. “So I just try to follow up with all the negative energy and try to turn it into something positive when I step on the court and in the locker room or on the bench cheering for my teammates. It’s very difficult when you’re not playing sometimes. It’s very easy to sulk and be upset and try to find ways to blame everybody else. But we’re still winning. We all have our health and we have an opportunity to win a championship.”
Howard is not the only NBA player to talk at length about the mental toll of living in the bubble. The eight-time All-Star who was originally against playing in a bubble format because of all that is going on in the nation and abroad has plenty of company on this topic. Clippers star Paul George came out and spoke about dealing with depression. The coronavirus pandemic, worldwide protests over social injustices and the killings of Black people by police have forced NBA players to do a re-take over what really is important.
All this falls in line with what Mental Health America (MHA) has to say about the impact of socioeconomic conditions that can lead to mental illness. According to MHA, racism continues to have an impact on the mental well-being of Black Americans. So when you mesh isolation tagged along with racial inequities and add boredom into the mix, it becomes a recipe for mental warfare.
There was a brief hiatus in play because players and teams were not sure to continue the season after the Jacob Blake shooting in Kenosha, Wisconsin. The calls for social justice have added another layer of burden on the shoulders of NBA players who really can’t do anything but practice, play games and go back to their hotel rooms.
“It’s really nothing to do, to be honest with you,” Howard said. “There’s nowhere to go. There’s no way for you to release anything, any feelings that you might have. It’s like we’re stuck..just try to find joy in the fact that I have my son with me, the fact that all we have to do is win eight games to win the championship. So I just try to stay positive with everything, but it is extremely difficult being in a location…can’t get out, can’t see family, friends. You’re just in a hotel. So that is very difficult of seeing the same walls every day. But at the end of the day, we’re going to count it all joy. Can’t allow it to really affect us too much. But it is extremely difficult.”