By Rich Levine
At some point, you assume hell figure it out.
Whether its in Orlando, or wherever he winds up after the summer of 2012, you imagine that something will eventually click in Dwight Howards head and the rest of the NBA will pay the price.
But Sundays Celtics victory was just another reminder that we arent there yet, and that for now Boston will continue to reap the benefits.
Hey, Dwight! screamed the drunken fan in the big green afro. I bet youre rooting for the Steelers tonight, huh!?!
Nah, Dwight Howard giggled back. Packers!
Up until this point of Sundays game, Howard had been the Celtics worst nightmare.
Hed scored 12 points in the first quarter, and while its not entirely rare for Howard to post a big number, today there was a fluidity to his game that had the Garden crowd reaching for an extra dose of Klonopin. There were dunks, of course, but that wasnt it. He was scoring in ways, and with a confidence, that had you worrying about the future; that made you wonder if those over-hyped workouts with Hakeem Olajuwon were finally translating.
Midway through the first, Howard (already with eight points on a variety of shots) lined up a 15-foot bank shot from the left wing. He caught the ball, sized up his defender, released it and didnt look all that awkward in the process. As the ball was in the air, I thought to myself: Good God, what if this goes in?
Whats the league going to do if this becomes part of Dwight Howards arsenal?
It missed, but that was beside the point. Thats how he had you thinking. Away from the ball, he was (naturally) controlling the paint on both ends, altering shots. He was angry, determined, focused. He was nearly unstoppable, the answer to the question: Hey, what will it look like if Dwight Howard ever figures this all out?
You not only saw a player showing vast improvement in a facet of the game that's bothered him since joining the league, but a guy on the verge of improving even more. Of adding new dimensions to his game and wreaking a more consistent, and different kind havoc on the NBA. One that went far beyond defensive and rebounding dominance. It was pretty terrifying.
But with 3:26 to play in the first, and the Magic up 18-9, Howard went to the bench, and over the next three minutes it happened. The clock struck midnight and the glimpse at what may one day become of Howard disappeared.
By the time Bostons "biggest nightmare" returned to the court, hed morphed back into the same old Celtics fantasy, and what initially looked like a sad day for the Cs turned into yet another big win.
Its hard to say why this happens so consistently with Howard especially in games of this magnitude, against a team as rivaled as the Celtics but when he came back, that physical dominance hed displayed in the opening quarter was overshadowed and corrupted by his inability to hang with the Celtics on a mental level.
And I dont mean intelligence. I mean focus. I mean composure. I mean that when Dwight Howard came back for that second quarter, it was like he'd lost that killer focus, and forgotten how much was on the line.
After putting on a show in that first quarter, he returned to find that the Celtics hadnt wavered, that they were still ready to fight; and he didn't seem ready. And while he did score (he finished with 10 in the second, to give him an impressive 222 for the half), it was much more vintage Howard; right at the rim. Lay-ups. Dunks. Meanwhile, he allowed himself to get suckered into Kendrick Perkins trap (how are you not prepared for Perk to antagonize you?) and drew a technical at the eight-minute mark. Shortly after, Kevin Garnett re-entered the game, and he and Perk went to work. Pushing, scraping, trying to get under Howards skin. The more they did it, the more Howard tried to appear unaffected. And that just weighed more on his focus, stunted his offensive abilities and allowed the Celtics to slowly take over. By the time the half ended, the Celtics had taken that earlier nine-point deficit and turned it into a three-point advantage.
While Howard sporadically showed flashes of intensity during the game, once the whistle blew, something was funny; something was worth laughing at. When you watch a team like the Celtics (and, truthfully, a lot of the guys on the Magic, too), you watch them get completely lost in the game; possessed by the competition. Theyre on that court, in battle, and nothing else matters.
You watch Howard, and its like he never forgets about the cameras. He never forgets that everyones watching. And as a result, I dont think hes trying to show off, but I do think hes always trying to entertain. I think he genuinely enjoys making people happy and thinks that this is the best way to do it.
Im sure David Stern loves that. But right now, it doesnt work against a team like the Celtics, at least not consistently. That mentality makes him an easy target. It leaves him open to falling into those technicals. It creates a weird vibe for his team.
It leads to situations where there are two minutes left in the second quarter, his teams clinging to a 40-37 lead (on the road, against the defending conference champs) and hes having an in-game conversation about the Super Bowl with a drunk guy in a green afro.
I'm not sure what it was about this ridiculous interaction that struck me as so important, but you just don't ever see it. Especially not in a game like that. And this wasn't during a time out either. This was with one of the Celtics at the foul line. The game was going on. Who does that?
Im not saying you have to always be serious. This year, Shaqs proven how much a team can benefit from not always keeping things so uptight. But theres a time and place that Howard just isnt grasping. That in-game silliness doesnt work when the team on the other side is dying for every second. When youre up against Rajon Rondo and KG, two of the most competitive guys out there; Paul Pierce, one of the proudest guys out there; Ray Allen, probably the most focused and detail-obsessed guy out there; and Kendrick Perkins, who knows that his next contract might just ride on how well he can stop you.
People say thats just him; that its just Dwight Howards playful personality. And thats fine, but unless something changes, that means Dwight Howard wont win a title.
Now, obviously, things could be a lot worse for Howard.
Hes barely 25 years, and clearly the best center in the NBA. He changes the game, defensively, like nobody else. Hes led the league in rebounding for the previous three seasons (for what its worth, Kevin Garnett led the league for four straight seasons before that). Hes led the league in blocks for the past two. Hes come up big in the playoffs. Hes led his team to the Finals. He is still a dominant force and an all-time physical specimen. I mean, he still finished with 28 points and 13 rebounds. That's pretty fantastic, but why does he it still feel like he can do more?
We keep expecting him to take that next step and connect the dots, grow up and become a champion.
But were just not there yet. Hes not there yet.
And in some ways, at 25 years old, and in only his seventh year in the league, maybe that shouldnt come as much of a surprise. Maybe it's too soon to overreact.
Shaq was 28 years old, and in his eighth year in the league when he finally reached the promise land, and that was in large part thanks to the maturation of Kobe. Hakeem Olajuwon was 31, and in his 10th year when he first won the title, and that was in enormous part due to the absence of Michael Jordan. David Robinson was 33, and also in his 10th year, and by then it was Tim Duncans team.
Once they reached those heights, the struggles they went through to get there went largely forgotten, or were at least looked back on far less critically.
But right now, as we saw Howard struggle in the second half; shoot 1-6 and fail to overcome the challenges of the Boston front court, it's clear that his maturation process is still under way. He still needs to find that right mentality. He might still needs to find the right combination of teammates. He still has room to grow.
Not that you'll hear the Celtics complaining. At least for now