Thursday, February 21, 2013

Everybody's Talkin' 'Bout "Dwight's Back"

The Lakers' saga this season has many key actors, from Kobe Bryant sublimating his ego to actually play winning basketball (it's killing him, by the way) to an injured and aging Steve Nash, from a high-profile coach cementing his mediocre legacy to Pau Gasol seemingly marooned in his own personal Beckett play waiting for some form of Godot that lets him play with his back to the basket, but all of that is somewhat ancillary to their playoff chances. There is one two-word phrase whose specific emphasis carries almost the entire weight of the Lakers' season. Thus far we've spent countless hours talking about the state of "Dwight's back," somewhat of a mystery because he so frequently oscillates between dominant and impotent, but many have been waiting endlessly to declare that "Dwight's back," that the beast of a few years ago is ready to reclaim his title as the best center in the world. Last night, against the Boston Celtics, it was firmly the latter usage.

Dwight's back or Dwight's back? Which do you mean?

Howard was a beast down low, still without any real touch or post moves but able to muscle his way into some easy baskets. He set fantastic screens for Steve Nash, rolling a couple times to the hoop for those easy flick passes only Nash and a few others can make and also freeing Nash for some seamless pull-up jumpers. He ran the floor on both ends, something this aging Lakers team has struggled with. Most importantly, Howard flew around on the defensive end, maybe not the guy he was three years ago but certainly a difference maker like the Lakers had hoped. And the Lakers beat the Celtics handily.

Games like this have happened before during Dwight's Laker tenure and good and bad will happen again, so we definitely shouldn't rush to judge him on this game alone. Some nights, Howard's back probably really does feel better, and on those nights, he can be the dominant force he once was, or at least a reasonable facsimile of it. Since Howard so desperately and misguidedly wants everyone to like him, he's been surprisingly forthcoming about the state of his injury, saying that when he sits there are times he can't feel his extremities and that he's not really anywhere near all the way back. Normally players would get lauded for this kind of honesty -- Derrick Rose and Andrew Bynum are currently getting excoriated for their tight-lipped approaches to rehab -- but with Howard it comes off as if he's making excuses, not explaining his current state.

So which version of the phrase is it going to be? Before getting shut down last year for back surgery, Howard had only missed seven games in his entire career, but that may not prove he's tough so much as that he's never played through a real injury. Howard may just not know how to play when he's not at 100% explosiveness, and that doesn't augur well for the rest of his career. We've been so caught up talking about the condition of Dwight's back, but last night, we stopped simply to marvel for one game, "Dwight's back."

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