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Vince Thomas

From The Floor

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For Howard, a Finals letdown and a summer of work ahead

By Vincent Thomas, for NBA.com
Posted Jun 15 2009 12:22PM

ORLANDO -- Dwight Howard sat on the bench, a sullen, 7-foot hulk, as the Lakers celebrated winning the 'ship on his floor. He asked his boy and 2004 draftmate Jameer Nelson to stay on the court with him to seethe in disappointment.

"See how they're celebrating, and it should motivate us to want to get in the gym, want to get better, just to see those guys celebrating," Howard said. "It's like what I told Jameer, we was right there at our goal."

Howard played, perhaps, his worst game of the Playoffs on Sunday night, a non-descript, non-impact 11-point, 10-rebound game in which he was rendered basically invisible for the entire second half. But that's the best thing that could have happened to D12 going into the summer. Get embarrassed, get criticized, get upset and get better. Like he told Nelson, they were right there at their goal. But at the end of the day, Howard was lacking.

I don't think it's a stretch to call Howard one of the more enigmatic ball players in the game, especially in that group of superstars that are supposed Real Franchise Players. Other than LeBron James, he is the game's most dynamic force. He owns the paint. If the ball caroms off the rim and Dwight is anywhere in its vicinity, he's swallowing it up. If a guard has the cajones to fly into the paint, he cowers a little the first time he sees the big dude. When Howard is on and balling -- like the 40 and 14 in the Cleveland-clincher, or even his 21-rebound, nine block effort in Game 4 of this series -- he exhibits a dynamism that's almost jarring.

What is sometimes lost in his gaudy numbers and masked by his magnetic personality is that, on a fundamental level, Howard is not a great basketball player. And it's all because he can't dominate on the offensive end of the floor. He's a beast down there, but he's not a tactician. Yet. After Dwight abused the Zydrunas Ilgauskas statue in Game 1 of the Cleveland series, his coach Stan Van Gundy made an observation about Orlando being able to run the offense through Dwight, as in "well that's not something we normally do, but he was actually making good decisions tonight."

That's the realm where Dwight currently resides. You never heard anyone say that Howard is picking a team apart. Boston's Kendrick Perkins and the L.A. big men really unveiled what has been apparent to anyone who has paid attention -- that if Howard isn't catching an oop or throwing down a putback dunk, he is severely limited. His jump-hook -- where he basically throws the ball at the rim, like he did for his "Superman Dunk" -- forces blood from eyes. He's still not a "Dump It Down" big man. Can you imagine how infinitely more dangerous Orlando could be if, for long stretches of the game, the Magic could dump the ball down to Dwight and let him go to work?

"What did he average, 17 points, 17 rebounds, five blocked shots?" asked Kobe. "Those are just ridiculous numbers. He's just a phenomenal player."

But did he give the Magic what they needed? Not enough. And Howard realizes this. Aside from getting a turnaround or a drop-step and other moves that I seriously hope he and Patrick Ewing will be working on this summer, the young man has to keep maturing.

At the beginning of the Finals, Kobe said that the most misunderstood notion about Howard is that he's not serious. This came after he called him a "goof ball." But it's not just that he's silly. He has a childish temperament, too. That's why he was near the top of the league in technical fouls.

He talked about his need to keep growing after the Lakers won Sunday night.

"Well, I can't get frustrated. I think this series, a lot of things didn't go my way, and I got a little frustrated, and I think that's one of the biggest areas that I can improve on," he admitted. "I know my game will continue to get better because I'm an extremely hard worker. I work on my game every day. So I'm not worried about that part. Just mentally, just being able to stay in the moment, staying in the game, bad calls or not touching the ball, the ball is not going in when you shoot it. Some of that stuff is frustrating at times."

Losing at home -- partly thanks to him not stepping up as needed -- is probably exactly what Dwight needs to keep tapping into what might be bottomless potential. Earlier in the Playoffs he said he thinks he's about 20 percent of the player he can be. Based on the reflective, serious tone of his postgame press conference, it looks like he has all the motivation he needs to get after that remaining 80 percent this summer.

"Next year we've got to be even hungrier to want to be champions," he said. "It does hurt, but I'd rather sit there and watch it than go in the locker room and feel sorry for myself. It hurts. It hurts a lot. But you can learn a lot from losing. Sometimes you've got to lose to win."

Vincent Thomas writes "The Commish" column for SLAM Magazine and is a contributing commentator for ESPN. His "From The Floor" column appears weekly on NBA.com. Vince invites you to email him at vincethomas79@gmail.com or follow him on twitter at twitter.com/VinceCAThomas.

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