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Wednesday, May 27, 2009
Dwight Howard's Extra Frame


Posted by Kevin Arnovitz

Despite Dwight Howard's protests following Orlando's Game 5 loss to Boston in the Eastern Conference semis, there's no correlation between the number of shots Howard takes and the likelihood of an Orlando Magic victory. Even though Howard's claims that he should be seeing more shots weren't rooted in any empirical truth, his misperceptions could potentially be beneficial. Given his muscle and athleticism, the Magic should prosper from the ball being in Howard's hands. If it takes a false impression of reality to motivate him to be a better finisher on set plays, who's going to complain? 

Dwight Howard
Dwight Howard: Happy When Fed (Elsa/NBAE via Getty Images)

Tuesday night, Dwight Howard scores only four points on 1-4 shooting from the field in the second half. Some of that can be chalked up Orlando's reliance on the three-ball, which is itself a response to Cleveland's clogging the middle against Howard. In the final six minutes of regulation, Howard manages only one chance from the field, when he gets a pass deep in the post from Hedo Turkoglu just inside of the 2:00 mark of the fourth quarter. Howard is immediately hacked by Anderson Varejao. Although his presence is helping Orlando's shooters, Howard is essentially an offensive decoy in the second half. 

The Magic's pick-and-roll game gets lost at times in their prolific three-point attack, but they start the overtime period with a high Howard/Turkoglu screen-and-roll. As Turkoglu turns the corner to his left, Howard dives through the lane, where all three Cleveland guards collapse on him. Varejao ultimately picks Turkoglu's pocket, which leads to a Cleveland break and a couple of free throws for Boobie Gibson. It's an inauspicious start to overtime for the Magic. 

When Orlando brings the ball up the next trip down, it appears as if the Magic aren't going to use Howard in the offense any differently than they did in the second half. Off the initial pick-and-roll, Howard draws Mo Wiliams on the rotation in the paint, but Rafer Alston doesn't look at Howard. By the time he does, Varejao has recovered and replaces Williams as the post defender on Howard, and the mismatch is lost. 

As Alston passes the ball off the Turkoglu on the left wing, Howard keeps fighting with Varejao for position on the left block. Sometimes, Howard can get dejected when he's ignored on the initial action. He won't quit working, but there's a difference between setting up in the post and bruising for every last inch inside. On this possession, Howard is doing the latter. Turkoglu recognizes it, and promptly feeds Howard on the left block. Howard does something here he doesn't frequently do -- he trusts his feet. Pounding the ball into the court, Howard backs Varejao in with his left shoulder. He collects the ball confidently, then pivots on his right foot to spin baseline. That's all he needs to get to the rim for the slam. Normally when Howard gets the ball at this spot in this situation, he's hesitant to change direction and we see him try to sweep across the lane and fling a running hook shot at the basket. Not this time.

What happens the next trip down when Alston is again blitzed on the pick-and-roll? He instantly looks for Howard on the dive. Delonte West has a nice defensive game, but he commits a fatal error here by leaving Howard too early. Instead of waiting another second or two for Varejao to recover, West runs out on Turkoglu, which leaves Howard wide open underneath. Perhaps it's reading too much into nothing more than a mental error, but what does West's decision to worry more about Turkoglu than Howard say about Orlando's late-game offense?

Cleveland's had enough. The last two possessions have prompted them to make a defensive adjustment to account for Howard. When the high screen/roll comes this time around, Varejao drops back into the paint. The Magic run a mirror image of the first Howard set, this time from the right side. Pietrus gets the entry pass into Howard. When Varejao gambles by trying to get in front of the pass, that's all the room Howard needs to build the head of steam that will power him to the rim with a left-handed drive. After Howard drops the ball through the hoop, an irate LeBron James whips his right arm in disgust at Varejao and, according to Doug Collins, yells to his teammate, "Foul him!"

That's exactly what Ben Wallace does with 21 seconds to go and the Magic leading by two. The most common reason attributed to Orlando's reluctance to feed Howard down the stretch in close games is his inability to convert at the line. For the fourth consecutive season, Howard drained fewer than 60 percent of his free throw attempts. Howard is 8-14 in Game 4 before he steps up to the line for two of the bigger attempts of his career. Although Howard's three dunks earlier in the period were more momentous, and his tip-in off a Turkoglu miss two possessions earlier gave the Magic a commanding six-point lead with just over a minute remaining, it's these pair of free throws that probably offer Orlando fans the most comfort. Both shots fall through without grazing the rim. 

The broad narrative of Game 4 will be about Dwight Howard's arrival as a closer, the night he lorded his physical gifts over everyone on the court when it mattered the most. Will it also be the point on the chronological axis when getting the ball to Dwight Howard started to matter? Maybe, maybe not. That's a trend that should play out for at least a full season before it's declared meaningful, but you think Dwight Howard cares about sample sizes?