Magic in the middle
by Todd Dybas / December 6, 2007
Thrusting his hands in the air to form a crooked T, Orlando Magic coach Stan Van Gundy called timeout. He spun and yelled. "Dwight!" Van Gundy jerked his thumb toward the scorer's table, motioning for Dwight Howard, his robust 21-year-old center, to check back into the game against Seattle.
With the game growing close, it was time to present Seattle with the same dilemma each Orlando opponent faces: double-team Howard, leaving the perimeter vacant, or break out a rosary and attempt to guard him straight up.
Against Seattle, strategy didn’t matter. Howard pulverized the Sonics for a career-high 39 points with 16 rebounds and five blocks. He spent the majority of the game proving the basket stanchions at KeyArena received a strong weld. He dunked nine times, exploiting the Sonics' 400-thread-count-soft interior defense.
"They didn't have an answer for (Howard)," Van Gundy said. "One guy couldn't stop him, two guys couldn't stop him, so they put everyone on him. If we had been making more shots and they had to play more honestly, who knows how many he could have had? 50?"
Howard was simply too athletic for the Sonics. He has surpassed the athlete's regular V shape from waist to shoulders. He appears more like a W with the center point smashed flat. As such an imposing presence, a fly-by from Mothra would not be out of the question.
His nightly output of 24 points and 15 rebounds is impressive, but physical dominance of other powerful post players has started to raise him toward a peerless tier. A showdown in Phoenix with Amare Stoudemire turned into a mismatch in Howard's favor (30 points, 23 rebounds). He scored 34 points and had 16 rebounds against Tim Duncan. He's in the league’s top 10 in points, rebounds, field-goal percentage and blocks. He has twice as many dunks as any other player. His only unsightly stat is his 3.3 turnovers per game.
"Point blank: He's the most dominant player in the game right now," Seattle's prized rookie, Kevin Durant, said.
As a 21-year-old who just signed an $85 million contract, Howard would be forgiven for a slight ego swell. But it's not happening. If anything, his psyche could use a boost.
"Ten percent," Howard said when asked what level of his potential he has reached. "I'm serious. The biggest thing for me is confidence, trust myself and my teammates. I know I've got a long way to go."
One of his Team USA teammates from the summer had similar thoughts.
"I think the biggest thing for Dwight is confidence," New Jersey Nets point guard Jason Kidd said. "He's young. Playing with some of the best players in the league (on Team USA during the summer), once you can go against those guys on a daily basis, it can only help you. It shows you what it takes to be at the highest level."
To help Howard get there, the Magic hired Patrick Ewing as an assistant coach over the summer. He works one-on-one with Howard. Before the game against Seattle, the right-handed Howard worked on his left hook while being advised by Ewing.
"He needs to continue on the path he's on," Ewing said. "Continually improve on free-throw shooting, his low-post moves, his jump hooks and he should be fine."
Orlando general manager Otis Smith has not been shy about the organization's philosophy – build around Howard. Surround him with shooters in an effort to free up space and provide punishment for any double-team in the post.
Rashard Lewis was signed for $118 million in the summer essentially to shoot threes. That's Hedo Turkoglu's job, too. Keith Bogans attempts six three-pointers per game. The three of them attempt 19 three-pointers a game. The Magic just traded for another three-point threat, Brian Cook.
It's the San Antonio scenario. Spread the floor, giving Howard room to work or, if he’s double-teamed, easy decisions to make. It worked with hammer-to-nail efficiency against Seattle, as it has against the rest of the league. At 16-4, Orlando has the most wins in the NBA despite playing the most road games.
When the Sonics went to a box-and-one, with Durant fronting Howard in an attempt to constrict entry lanes to the post while the other four Sonics kept the center in their peripheral vision, Orlando moved the ball around the perimeter. Three consecutive, wide-open three-pointers swelled the Magic's lead to double digits, putting the game away.
"He has shooters everywhere," Kidd said. "If they don't double, he's one-on-one, which he would probably say that he thinks he has the advantage."
Howard isn’t dominating with a snarl and an elbow. His dunks are ferocious, but his demeanor is not.
His playful nature gained public traction last season during a dance off with Shaquille O'Neal over All-Star weekend.
During a timeout in Seattle, not in the game and standing outside the huddle, he balled up a towel and drilled the Sonics' energetic mascot, Squatch. Giggling, Howard quickly turned away to try to hide his guilt. The crowd exposed him as the culprit.
Howard danced his way through the layup line, a series of shimmies and shakes gyrating his 270 sculpted pounds when the Magic took the floor. After the game he poked fun at Sonics forward Damien Wilkins, who stopped by Orlando's locker room to greet Lewis. He took a writer's shoe selection to task. He even straightened teammate Jameer Nelson's tie.
It's all fun and dominant games, but, on the court Howard claims he isn't quite there yet.
"I know I've got a long way to go," Howard said. "My goal is to be one of the best players, one of the greatest players to play basketball, so I've got a long, long way to go."
Todd Dybas is a regular contributor to HoopsHype.com
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