ORLANDO, Fla. -- A lifetime ago, the idea of Dwight Howard being the man in the middle of a championship run in this city made a lot of sense.
He was the most dominant big man in the league back then, the face of the Orlando Magic and considered by most the best big man in basketball.
His profile has changed dramatically over the years, but there he was Thursday night at AdventHeath Arena, manning the middle for the Los Angeles Lakers as they moved to within a game of making it to The Finals with a 114-108 win over the Denver Nuggets.
There are plenty of reasons the Lakers lead this series 3-1 with a chance to close it out Saturday night in Game 5. Anthony Davis (34 points, 5 rebounds) dominated early, played through the pain of a nasty sprained ankle and finished strong. LeBron James was masterful on both ends, stepping up on defense down the stretch, locking down Nuggets scoring machine Jamal Murray.
But it was Howard’s energy and activity early -- he started Game 4 opposite All-NBA center Nikola Jokic -- that made the difference for the Lakers.
After not playing in the conference semifinal matchup against Houston’s small-ball attack, Howard has turned into a key piece of the jumbo package frontline Lakers coach Frank Vogel deployed from the tip Thursday night.
HIs offensive rebounding and physicality on Jokic helped set the tone for the Lakers, who still had to survive the Nuggets until the final minute.
“Dwight was a beast,” James said. “[He] gave us opportunities when we missed shots, which as a team, we missed a couple. AD didn't miss any, but as a team, when we missed a couple shots, he was cleaning glass both offensively and defensively. Got us put-backs and was able to control the paint. We know we got smashed in the rebounding category in Game 3, so we wanted to do a better job in that. Dwight brought that physical presence. It was great for our ballclub.”
The Lakers are the only team still alive playing with the sort of supersized expectations they brought with them to the bubble. Howard, like both James and Davis, was the No. 1 overall pick in his Draft class and is destined for the Naismith Memorial Basketball of Fame some day.
He played like someone who comprehends this moment, even if he has been a role-playing reserve this season. His 12 points and 11 rebounds served as his first playoff double-double since 2017. The Lakers held a 12-6 edge on the offensive glass and piled up 25 second-chance points to the Nuggets’ six.
Davis certainly appreciated the boost Howard provided, especially after the Lakers were pounded on the glass in their Game 3 loss to the Nuggets.
“Dwight's impact this entire series has been very helpful for us,” Davis said. “First half, he has six offensive rebounds. His body language with Jokic, just being a pest and taking on that challenge. I mean, like I say, for a guy not to play the last series and come in and have huge impact, he stayed ready. Got the start tonight and been playing well for us.”
Lakers coach Frank Vogel didn’t deliberate long about swapping Howard into the first five in place of JaVale McGee. Howard’s ability to bother Jokic was evident in the minutes he played previously. His impact was unmistakable.
Dwight just brings energy, you know what I mean?,” Vogel said. “[He] really set a great tone for us tonight.”
“Dwight just brings energy, you know what I mean?,” Vogel said. “He fits what we want to embody in terms of being a team that plays harder than our opponent every night. He plays extremely hard and extremely physical. [He] really set a great tone for us tonight.”
Jokic never recovered from the physicality Howard applied early, struggling through a 16-point, seven-rebound, four-assist night after getting in foul trouble early. Murray was the Lakers’ biggest problem (32 points, eight assists), given his hot start kept the Nuggets from being run out off the court due to a 7-for-7 shooting start from Davis.
But in the final five minutes, James shifted over to guard the Nuggets’ scoring wiz. The All-NBA length, strength and timing James provides proved crucial as the Lakers’ got critical stops to seal the win.
“LeBron asked for the assignment and obviously I granted it,” Vogel said. “He did a great job down the stretch trying to contain him 1-on-1. Murray had a great night. Nothing was really working in terms of trying to slow him down until LeBron took that assignment. Game ball to him, I guess, for that move.”
It was the sort of move you’d expect from a 17-year veteran and three-time champion who knows when it’s time to take over.
“I knew it was winning time, and Jamal had it going,” James said. “The kid is special. He has an array of shots. Triple-threat from the three, mid-range and also in the paint. For me, it's just trusting my defensive keys. Trusting my study of film. Trusting personnel. And living with the results. I told my teammates that I had him and everyone else can kind of stay at bay and stay home. I was able to get a couple stops and we were able to rebound the basketball, which is the most important thing.”
Finishing these Nuggets off becomes the most important thing for the Lakers. And that’s a task the Utah Jazz and LA Clippers failed to do in the previous two rounds, each having held (and lost) 3-1 series leads.
The Nuggets are the first team in NBA playoff history to rebound from multiple 3-1 deficits and win in the same postseason.
They’ve been at their most dangerous and best with their season on the line.
“Of course. They have done it twice this year. They are extremely difficult to play against on both sides of the ball,” Vogel said. “They are well-coached defensively. They have great speed and physicality. Obviously, Jamal and the Joker are just playing at an extremely high level offensively, as is their supporting cast. The bench has been fantastic. Great respect for this team and definitely know that we have a lot of work to do to finish this series.”
The Lakers also have to make sure Davis is healthy and ready to go. He played through the pain Thursday night.
And if Howard is going to get a chance to finish off his storybook ending to his Orlando experience in The Finals, the Lakers will need Davis to play through whatever discomfort remains heading in Saturday night.
“You can never be comfortable around this team,” Davis said. “They have been in this situation twice. We've been in the situation twice. But both teams are familiar with these situations, but this team is not going to go away. Like I said last game, we’ve got to put them away. They are going to continue to fight, no matter what the score is, no matter what the situation is, we just have to make sure we counter everything they do.”
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