All season long, JaVale McGee and Dwight Howard have been mainstays in the rotation for the Los Angeles Lakers. McGee started all year, with Howard coming off the bench, giving the purple and gold nearly 36 minutes of bruising physicality per game during the regular season, alternated with 12 minutes a night of quicker, faster lineups centered around Anthony Davis at center.
During the Western Conference semifinals, however, McGee and Howard have seen their roles diminish. Howard played a playoff-low 11 minutes during Game 1 against the Rockets and hasn’t seen the floor since. McGee saw his playing time decrease in every game he appeared in, and hasn’t played since the first half of Game 3, getting benched for Markieff Morris in the second half that night, and right from the start of Game 4, with the Lakers going smaller so that they could switch and scramble more easily around the floor on defense.
It isn’t easy for any NBA player to go from having a consistent role for their team to riding the pine, but McGee and Howard aren’t sulking. Instead, they’ve decided to give the Lakers’ value in a different way: As the two tallest cheerleaders in NBA history.
Howard has been clapping and yelling from the bench, trash talking with various Rockets players from the Lakers’ bench section. McGee has literally celebrated so hard that he’s fallen over the stanchion separating the court from where the players sit on at least one occasion. Without a crowd to cheer the Lakers on, McGee and Howard have taken it upon themselves to give their team energy. Their teammates have definitely noticed and appreciate it.
“It’s tough coming into a series, you get pulled out and don’t see any minutes,” Davis said after Game 4. “A lot of guys can kind of just fade away and be upset that they’re not playing. Guys come in and say they want to do whatever they can to help a team win, but when they don’t get minutes they kind of fade away.
“But those guys said they wanted to be here and do whatever to help the team win, and you see it. They’re the loudest guys on our bench, cheering for our guys, talking to us during the games, talking to us during timeouts,” Davis continued. “That’s what we need. They’re two guys who have been in the league for a long time, Dwight has been in the Finals, JaVale, multiple championships, so those guys know what it takes to win, so we try to listen to them.”
“I would echo Anthony’s sentiments,” added Lakers head coach Frank Vogel. “Their energy on the bench is a big part of our group’s enthusiasm. There’s no fans, you know what I mean? So how active we are, how engaged we are with the guys who are not on the floor is a big part of generating our own energy, and Dwight and JaVale were the loudest guys on the bench last night.”
Against 28 other NBA teams, McGee and Howard can play a valuable role for the Lakers, contributing to one of the best defenses in the league with their bulk and wingspan, serving as seven-foot inflatable tube men at the rim to deter drivers from even going there. But against the Rockets, they’re just stylistically a weak link at times, and they haven’t taken it personally that the Lakers coaching staff has noticed.
“They’re very actively involved, and their role acceptance in a matchup-oriented series like this is everything,” Vogel said. “It’s a big reason why we’re winning. If they’re unhappy or disgruntled, or anything like that, it pulls away from what we’re trying to do, and those guys deserve a lot of credit for their approach.”
Their teammates also appreciate their sacrifice for the bigger picture.
“I commend our bigs for knowing that this series is a different type of series and not being able to play, but still being on the bench and giving us the input and perspective, and cheering us on and give us the energy we need. Because those guys are our backbone, JaVale and Dwight,” said Lakers guard Danny Green. “For them to accept that role, to accept that we need to play a little smaller, a little faster and be okay with it is huge for us.”
Vogel hasn’t publicly ruled out Howard or McGee having a role in this series moving forward, but it’s always seemed to be more due to his preference to never throw guys under the bus and keep Houston on their toes rather than him genuinely desiring to play them. Luckily for the Lakers, Howard and McGee are just fine with whatever he does, and Vogel and the rest of the Lakers clearly believe Howard and McGee can help against other teams moving forward, just like they have all season.
“When their number is called, they’ll still do the right things and be ready,” Davis said.
For now, they’re just trying to help in a different way.