It all started out innocently enough, with Dwight Howard doing what he does best. Not dunking or blocking shots or searching far and wide for his killer instinct. Instead, Howard was holding court at the NBA Store Wednesday, bringing the house down with his smile and his personality.
But after he was done modeling the NBA’s new, lighter, sweat-proof, revolutionary adidas uniforms — available for only $350 at your local retailer — Howard spoke with the kind of edge and tenacity you long to see him play with on a nightly basis. After he was finished delighting the crowd with Frank Caliendo-like impressions of Stan Van Gundy and Charles Barkley, Howard turned his attention toward the two enormous challenges in his path with training camp about to open: Avenging the [Orlando] Magic‘s embarrassing loss to the Celtics in the Eastern Conference finals, and proving that the Heat didn’t win the NBA title with a few free-agent signings in July. [...]
And so there you have it — but only part of it. Is Howard, trying to shake the label of being the guy who puts the gentle in giant, aggravated by all the attention being showered upon division rival Miami? Damn right he is. Is that all? Nope.
What has stung Howard all summer — from the weight room to the practice court, where he’s been known to shoot 1,000 jumpers a day — is the humiliation he experienced at the hands of the Celtics at the end of May. That, more than anything, had Howard vowing Wednesday that his days of playing Mr. Nice Guy are over. [...]
Listening to Howard Wednesday convinced me that’s about to change. Even if Miami signs free-agent center Erick Dampier, Howard is the one player in the league capable of exploiting the Heat inside and making their flashy free agents wish they’d never united. If he can play every game, every quarter, every minute with the memory of the Boston loss and all this premature celebration in Miami on his mind, no one will be able to stop him.
“They have good players,” Howard said of the Heat. “Every team has good players. I think what that did for a lot of guys on my team is, it kind of motivated our guys: ‘Hey, we’re going to show people what we’re made of.’ And it’s good. It’s good for guys who needed that extra motivation to get them where they want to get to.”
Such as, you know, Howard himself. He didn’t say it, but he understood that he was part of the problem. That’s why this summer, Howard sought out some of the greatest ever to play — Hakeem Olajuwon, Karl Malone, and a mystery mentor he refused to name — to get advice on how to get past this hurdle.
The hurdle of failure.
That’s what Dwight Howard is trying to overcome this season.
After the Orlando Magic lost to the Boston Celtics in the 2010 NBA Eastern Conference Finals and the Miami Heat signed LeBron James and Chris Bosh in free agency, there’s been a lot of chatter about the shift of hierarchy in the East.
The Heat, by virtue of signing James — the best player in the league — and teaming him up with Wade and Bosh, have emerged as the favorites to win the Eastern Conference. And even though not many people expect the Celtics to finish better than No. 3 in the conference, there’s no question that they can’t be counted out in the title mix after their renaissance in the playoffs last year.
Where does that leave the Magic?
Well, it wouldn’t be much of a surprise to see Orlando finish with one of the best records in the NBA and flirt with the top seed in the East. But in the end, it comes down to matchups in the postseason and there is some skepticism as to whether or not the Magic are capable of beating the Heat and the Celtics in a seven game series.
Yet there is one player for Orlando that has the power to dictate the outcome in either scenario.
That man is Howard.
If Howard is able to make a similar leap on offense as he did on defense a few years ago, then the Magic will be in good shape against the other elite teams in the league. It’s very clear that Howard understands that, given that he’s sought out the help of Hakeem Olajuwon in the off-season, and seems motivated to prove some of the critics that are not giving Orlando much of a chance against Miami and Boston. Ultimately, it’s up to Howard to make a difference for the Magic.