From the very second Dwight Howard entered Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals, it was clear he was ready to be a nuisance. After not playing any meaningful minutes for the Lakers since the first game of the previous round of the NBA playoffs, Howard was rested, and ready to irritate the Denver Nuggets, with a special emphasis on their star, Nikola Jokic.
Howard walked into huddles the Nuggets were having with the referees. He made sure he was rarely not making some sort of physical contact with Jokic. He bumped and prodded him until Jokic picked up two offensive fouls and had to sit the rest of the first half, and then proceeded to swat shots and fluster the rest of the Nuggets with his physicality. In general, he made it his mission to be as annoying as humanly possible, and succeeded with flying colors.
While speaking with reporters after the game, Howard said that it’s all because of how much respect he has for how dangerous Jokic can be.
“He’s an awesome player and I’ve loved watching his growth from when he came into the league until now. For me, as soon as I step on the court, I want to let him know that I’m there,” Howard said, joking that his strategy may end up extending off the court, too.
“Since we’re staying at the same hotel, I might meet him right outside his room and let him know that for the rest of the series, I’m gonna be right there, locked on to you,” Howard continued, cracking a smile. “It’s not nothing bad, it’s just competitive spirit inside of me. I appreciate his hard work and dedication to the game, and this is a great opportunity for myself, so I’m going to take advantage of any moment that I have on the floor, and give my teammates and Laker Nation 110%.”
Howard is probably kidding, but now there is nothing I want more than footage of him actually not just picking up Jokic full-court, but guarding him full-resort. Of Howard waiting outside of Jokic’s room until Jokic comes out and sighs and throws his hands up in the air when he sees Howard there. Of Howard hand-checking Jokic as he walks through the line at the breakfast buffet. Of Howard playing ball-denial defense as Jokic tries to walk up the stairs to the water slide on an off day, or of Howard following him in a golf cart and trying to block his drives while Jokic just tries to get in a few rounds of golf to relax.
Unfortunately, because 2020 just sucks in an impossible amount of ways, such moments will probably be restricted to our imagination. At least we got some decent memes out of it.
Dwight until he wins his first ring! pic.twitter.com/mwgqqHkLjf— Mamba4Eva8/24 (@vader317) September 19, 2020
Still, Howard does deserve a ton of credit for staying ready for his moment. After not playing meaningful basketball in two weeks, he could have looked rusty. Instead, he accepted that last series was not a good fit for him, kept putting the work in, and was able to flourish as one of the Lakers’ most valuable players in this round.
“I’ve been telling him the last two weeks, he’s going to be our X-Factor this series,” said Lakers guard Rajon Rondo. “I’m very happy he got the opportunity to come out and play and display his talent, and show how much we need him.
“I told him during the Houston series that things may not go his way at times, but for a championship run you need all 15 guys,” Rondo continued. “It’s a testament to the management, we’re able to be flexible. Go small, go big and tonight Dwight Howard was especially great for us.”
Howard was electric right when he entered the game in the first half. His stats on the night — 13 points, 3 rebounds, 2 steals and 2 blocks — are good, even if they won’t blow anyone away, but anyone watching the game could see how much energy Howard infused the Lakers with from the moment he checked in. Lakers head coach Frank Vogel liked what he saw so much, in fact, that he gave starter JaVale McGee a quick hook and started Howard for the second half, something he already did in an earlier game against the Nuggets this season. He and the Lakers clearly value the work Howard does on Jokic.
“I just liked his energy. Dwight has a great physical presence out there, and this is going to be a physical series. We didn’t have a plan to (start him in the second half) going into the night, but I really liked the way he played in the first half and it felt like he can make an impact by starting the second half,” Vogel said.
Lakers star Anthony Davis, who was saved from having to play bigger minutes at center than he prefers due to Howard’s excellence, effusively credited his veteran teammate for the win.
“He played extremely well. He was physical with Jokic. He made his free throws, was great in the pick and roll game, was talking on defense and just regardless of who he is as a person or a player, to not play in our last series against Houston and come out and be ready to play in the Western Conference Finals, that’s really valuable,” Davis said. “He came in and played huge minutes for us tonight and helped us get the win.”
For Howard, who Vogel extensively credited for the weight he lost heading into the season and for the work he’s put into his body while committing to his role — and who was so determined to prove himself that he was the one who asked the Lakers for a non-guaranteed contract so that he could show how committed he was — it was the culmination of a season-long effort to do whatever it takes to win a ring. Howard admitted he thinks about coming up short against the Lakers the last time he was in the NBA Finals in 2009 every day, and whether he’s following Nikola Jokic around the Disney World campus or serving as the largest cheerleader in NBA history, he’s ready to do anything he can to help the purple and gold raise banner No. 17.
“As a professional you’ve got to always stay ready. Last series, I knew that was small ball and coach had already told us (centers) it was going to be tough for us to get minutes because of how Houston plays. So instead of getting upset or just pouting, I just decided to go get ready for this series against whoever we played next,” Howard said.
“I was just very thankful that I got the opportunity to get out there and play. I gave my teammates everything I got.”