The last time Dwight Howard made the NBA Finals in 2009, he was the most dominant center on the planet.
In 23 games for the Orlando Magic in the 2008-09 postseason, Howard averaged 20.3 points, 15.3 rebounds and 2.6 blocks per game. His Magic upset the No. 1 seeded Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference Finals as the No. 3 seed. He’s the reason we never saw Kobe Bryant and LeBron James go head-to-head in the Finals.
Unfortunately for Howard, he couldn’t carry his team past the Los Angeles Lakers, who took care of the Magic in five games after feeling the crushing weight of defeat in the previous season, when they lost to the Boston Celtics in six games.
The Magic’s playoff run in 2009 might have been a disappointment to Magic fans, but Howard is proud of what he accomplished in his last Finals run, even though it didn’t end in a championship for his team.
“I don’t think that it was a disappointment of expectations,” Howard told reporters on Tuesday. “We made it to the Finals. Only two teams that can do that every year. For our team to go from where we were with the Magic, where people calling us in the city of Orlando tragic, from us being really, really bad to being one of the most talked about teams in the NBA ... It meant a lot to me, Jameer Nelson, and the rest of guys on the team to how we were a part of making the Magic a household name.
“We’re we just happy that we turned all that around. Even losing (in the Finals), what that did was just put a fire under us to want to get better, to be the best we can be to try to bring a championship to Orlando.”
Howard never made the Finals with the Magic again, but he seemed destined to make the NBA Finals again in the 2012-13 season, when he teamed up with Steve Nash, Kobe Bryant, Metta World Peace and Pau Gasol in Los Angeles. However, due to a combination of clashing personalities in the locker room and injuries, including Howard’s own back injury, they fell short of their lofty expectations.
Howard left the Lakers after just one season to sign with the Rockets, and immediately became one of the most vilified players in the history of Los Angeles sports. For six years, Howard was serenaded with a chorus of boos every time he stepped into Staples Center. Lakers fans couldn’t stand the sight of him and actively rooted for him to fail.
Things are different now.
Last summer, Howard unexpectedly signed a contract to return to the Lakers without a guaranteed spot in the starting lineup — or even a guaranteed contract. Since then, Howard has proven that he isn’t the same player that was forced out of six teams in four years.
He had changed, the Lakers had gone through changes of their own, and those changes led them back to each other at the right time.
“I think a lot of people had a different perception of how everything ended,” Howard said, noting that he and the team are very much on the same page now.
“I think that everything is different,” Howard said. “It’s just really an awesome feeling. For me, it was just like letting go of ego, pride, and just understanding that you can’t have that in order to live a really successful life. Just understanding that coming back to this team, I was going to give whatever I had to give up just to be the best player I can be for this team.”
Howard showed his value on the court for the Lakers in the Western Conference Finals, when he was tasked with guarding Nikola Jokic, who’s arguably the best center in the NBA. In the 101 minutes Howard was on the court, the Lakers posted a defensive rating of 100.0, which was the best defensive rating of the series. They were also 11.3 points per 100 possessions better with him offensively.
He was tremendous, but the thing that’s been the most impressive about Howard’s second go-round with the Lakers in the postseason is his willingness to sacrifice for the team.
In the previous round, Howard played just under 16 minutes total, and his first start didn’t come until Game 4 of the Western Conference Finals. Howard could have acted entitled, like he has in the past, but he didn’t. He could have refused to play the garbage time minutes he played in the Western Conference semifinals, but he didn’t — Howard enthusiastically cheered on his teammates from the sidelines throughout the series and acted like a good teammate.
Howard’s different, and it’s because he wanted to things to be different this time around.
“A lot of that work, a lot of the things that have happened during the course of this season, has just made me a better man, made me a better teammate,” Howard said. “I’m just looking forward to playing in the Finals and just enjoying that moment and seeing our Lakers fans who have really been faithful and really kept us strong, just playing for them.”
It’s unclear what Howard’s role with the Lakers will be in the next round with how versatile the Miami Heat are, but he’s ready to do whatever it takes to help his team win. As nice as Howard’s Hollywood redemption story has been so far, he wants to to have a happy ending, and to him, that means winning a championship.
“I think it’ll be one of the best feelings in the world,” Howard said. “I sit at home, sit in the room, and I walk around the bubble and I just think about how that feeling would be just to hold up that trophy. It brings me to tears every time I think about it.
“Every day since we been in the bubble it’s been like, man, this is a great opportunity. Take full advantage of it and stay in the moment. You know, even after we won the Western Conference Finals I wanted to be like, all right, this is not the goal just to win with the Western Conference Finals. The goal is the win the championship.”
Howard’s been in this situation before, but this time feels different, because he’s different. Let’s hope that’s the case, and that Howard finally gets his happy ending.