The three-time Defensive Player of the Year is now essentially a hired goon off the bench against star Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic, and it has yielded mostly positive results in a Western Conference finals series the Lakers now lead 2-0. And one person is sure what he is doing is cool: Dwight Howard.
After registering five fouls in 12:45 on Sunday night, Howard broke from the celebration of teammate Anthony Davis’ game-winning buzzer beater in Game 2 to do this, according to The Athletic’s Sam Amick:
“Go home!” he yelled over and over while laughing, jumping, pumping his fist and getting closer to the Nuggets’ side of the floor with every second. “Go home!”
Per Amick, several Nuggets staffers, including strength and conditioning coach Felipe Eichenberger, took offense and engaged in a war of words with Howard before the two sides returned to their locker rooms.
This is an attempt to be a bully by a player who everyone wished had been a bully throughout his career. It is a heel turn from an eight-time All-Star who spent his previous NBA stays trying to craft a cleaner image.
Before Howard ever checked into Sunday’s game, upon learning Jokic was tasked with defending Lakers star Anthony Davis, the 34-year-old big man joined teammate JaVale McGee in calling the Nuggets center everything from “steak dinner” to “a glass of champagne,” according to Yahoo Sports insider Chris Haynes.
It turns out Howard is still extremely annoying, just as he was during tours of duty for the Orlando Magic, Kobe Bryant’s Lakers, the Houston Rockets, Atlanta Hawks, Charlotte Hornets and Washington Wizards. Only, instead of rubbing his teammates the wrong way, Howard has turned to pissing off his opponents.
It can border on absurd and turn ineffective quickly, but at least he is competing — the biggest criticism Bryant and other former teammates repeatedly levied against him over the past decade. He was wildly effective in Game 1, scoring 13 points on five shots off the bench and disrupting Jokic’s playmaking, so much so that there was considerable discussion about whether Howard should start Game 2 against Jokic.
“As soon as I step onto the court, I’m gonna let him know that I’m there,” Howard told reporters following his his performance in a lopsided Game 1 Lakers victory. “We’re staying at the same hotel, so I might meet him right outside his room, let him know for the rest of the series, I’m gonna be right here, locked onto you.”
I can appreciate what Howard was trying to say, but that is also very weird. At the first sign of praise, he turned that for which he was being praised into a parody. Welcome to the Dwight Howard experience!
He did not start Game 2, but he did hold true to his promise. Upon subbing in midway through the second quarter, Howard tangled with Jokic on a box-out, drawing a foul that could have gone either way. The Lakers proceeded to double their lead with LeBron James on the bench. They will take that, even if Howard’s two personal fouls and a technical in a minute span let Denver back in the game before halftime.
After Howard’s shoving match with Paul Millsap resulted in the tech, TNT color analyst Reggie Miller said of Howard, “He’s just out here straight trying to punk Jokic. Seriously, that’s all he’s really doing.” And he was right. As Howard tried pleading his case with referees in vain, Rajon Rondo had to tell his Lakers teammate to check himself, as did Danny Green after the game, when Howard was telling the Nuggets to “go home.”
In between, we saw how it could go wrong. Upon returning in the fourth quarter, Howard immediately clutched Jokic’s arm and spun him around on another box-out, voiding a Lakers offensive rebound. Jamal Murray’s layup gave the Nuggets their first lead of the second half on the other end. The Lakers were pulling away again when two more Howard personals gave Denver life, but for Davis’ buzzer-beater.
Jokic seemed to uncover the key to counter Howard’s antics during the center’s second stint on Sunday, simply by engaging him in the ridiculous. This will never be a series if the Nuggets allow Howard to “punk” their best player. If Howard wants to be an overqualified goon, then play basketball and let him clown himself.
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