NEW YORK -- 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.
|Dwight Howard is still simmering from his team's ugly Eastern Conference finals loss to Boston. (US Presswire)|
"We heard it all summer: 'The Miami Heat are going to win. They're going to do this and do that,'" Howard said. "In our minds we're like, 'Hey, they haven't played a game yet so what makes them champions?'"
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.
"Losing the way we did to Boston, I think it kind of pissed me off to the point that I didn't want our team to be looked at as the team that lost to Boston the way we did," Howard said. "[It was] the way we were viewed by the media, the way I was viewed.
"I went from this nice guy to this goon or something like that. And I'm like, 'Hey, I'm playing basketball. If they're going to be physical, we're going to be physical.' People were saying our team wasn't physical and I didn't like that. I'm a physical player and I want my teammates to be the same way. If people are calling us a team that doesn't like to be physical, I don't like that."
Howard said the turning point was after Orlando fell behind 3-0 to Boston in the conference finals, having been eviscerated at every turn by the Celtics' smothering defense and the dominant play of Rajon Rondo. It took that kind of embarrassment, that kind of wakeup call for something to click.
"I wasn't about to lie down in front of my teammates," Howard said. "I just had to figure out a way to do whatever I can to try to get our team back in the series."
It was too late to come back and win the series, but Howard believes he planted the seeds for the season that is upon him now. In the consecutive games Orlando won when facing elimination, Howard was unstoppable with 53 points, 26 rebounds and nine blocks. ("I found out I had another gear in me," he said.) And that wasn't the only place where Howard changed. He changed in the locker room, too.
"I really learned how to talk to my teammates, be a better leader, be more vocal," Howard said. "But also in the locker room, show my teammates a different side of me. The side that most people always see is me smiling and having fun, which is great. But I showed my teammates that when it's time to get serious, then it's time to get serious. And I'm going to expect them to do the same."
Howard won't report to training camp next week surrounded by newly acquired All-Stars or dynamic duos. Through intermediaries, Howard let it be known to management that he wanted every effort to be made to acquire an All Star-caliber running mate, with Chris Paul and Carlos Boozer at the top of his list. Neither came to fruition, and the best Orlando could do was acquire a backup point guard (Chris Duhon) and another 3-point shooter (Quentin Richardson). The Bulls' efforts to land restricted free agent J.J. Redick were thwarted when the Magic matched Chicago's offer sheet.
Howard thinks Duhon's pick-and-roll game will help the offense, and Richardson's defense will make Orlando one of the few teams that can send waves of capable defenders at LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. But to suggest that Duhon and Richardson will make the difference when Orlando runs into Boston or Miami in the conference finals is silly talk -- sillier than Howard's impressions. This is about No. 12, plain and simple. If his demeanor has changed as much as he insists it has, then the road to the championship may not be paved with marquee free agents, after all.
There are precious few teams and even fewer individuals who have a legitimate chance of thwarting Miami's championship coronation. One of those teams is the Celtics, who will remain Orlando's nemesis until Howard figures out how to beat them. One of those individuals is Kobe Bryant, whose competitive fire has been burning unusually hot this summer after Miami's signings, announcements and televised decisions were over.
"I don't think there's any question," teammate Derek Fisher said Wednesday. "Those are the type of things at this point in his career that are exciting. He's constantly searching for those opportunities to basically make himself mad. Even though he likes all three of those guys, I think he loves the challenge and the competition that lies ahead."
The other individual is Howard, without a doubt. His reaction when Miami landed LeBron and Chris Bosh to join Dwyane Wade was a step in the right direction for the man who should dominate the NBA every night he steps onto the floor.
"My first reaction was, 'I cannot wait for this season to start,'" Howard said. "Not, 'Oh, they're going to be so good.' I don't think anybody's afraid of those guys. Everybody's looking forward to playing them. They're looking forward to playing everybody else. They still have to dress up and play."
We will find out if the sting of losing to Boston and the insult he's felt with all eyes focused on Miami can actually be channeled on the court. Howard sounds serious, and I believe him. I've never been in the Howard-Hater camp, but I have to be fair: For someone that big, that strong, with that many physical gifts, he's underachieved to this point in his career.
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.
"Their big thing to me was," Howard said, "you've got to be able to fail before you succeed."
And he said that in a serious voice. The time for joking around is over.