Thursday, May 14, 2015

To Live, Die and Live Again in LA

Back in 2012, the Lakers figured they had their future cornerstone in Dwight Howard. He had worn out his stay in Orlando, the final act being his awkward relationship with then Magic coach Stan Van Gundy. 

Instead of Howard getting his dream to win a championship for a big market team with a ton of rich history and lineage, he got a nightmare of unfulfilled potential and resentment from the Laker fanbase. Love him, hate him- it just didn't work out as designed for either Howard or the Lakers.
The last image of Howard saw him foul out against the Spurs in a less than stellar performance, the final game of a 4 game sweep for San Antonio. His heart just was not in the City of Angels.

Next came the courting of Howard in free agency...or as I dubbed it, "The Dwight-pocalypse".

The Mavs, Warriors, Hawks, Rockets and Lakers were all competing to land the big man. Each team rolled out the red carpets for the former 2004 number one pick. No one was truly certain where he'd land, and even after the initial announcement of him being  Rocket was made...his flying to LA soon after started rumors of a possible waffling. Yet, all it was was a trip to inform Lakers brass of his decision: Howard was heading to Houston to team up with James Harden. He spoke with Houstonian and former WWE wrestler Booker T at the time:

"The one year was because I was traded there and I had one year left on the contract. I think a lot of people felt like I was just leaving L.A. because of everything that was going on and I couldn’t handle the pressure, anything like that. But I just felt like, with L.A., the direction of their team, wasn’t where I was trying to go. And I looked at the city and the team of Houston, I just felt like this team and this city was headed in a different direction and the right direction. One of writing their own history.”

He'd go on to say that, " I didn't run from LA, I ran to Houston." Definitely a glass half full approach.

His first season with Houston saw strides in his post game, yet he lacked the finesse of a player like his mentor, former Rocket great Hakeem Olajuwon. The pairing of him and Harden gave Houston the foundation it needed, but it was not ready to truly be a player in the West. They would go on to lose 4-2 to the Blazers in round one, courtesy of this:

This season saw the franchise make great strides, finishing 2nd in the West and Southwest Division Champs. But it wasn't because of Howard- but because of almost-MVP James Harden. Howard missed 41 games, and not even optimistic GM Daryl Morey was sure if Howard would be ready for the playoffs, or the effect he would have on them. But the time off helped, and the last ten games of the season prepared Howard for a first round 4-1 win over Dallas. Howard averaged 16.6 points, 13.8 rebounds and 3 blocks a game.

While Houston looked dominant against Dallas, before Game 5 they have looked anything but against the well-balanced Clippers.  Howard would often get in foul trouble, or fall victim to Hack-A-Howard. At times his temper would get the best of him, seeing him get T'd up in Game 4. DeAndre Jordan had the advantage, out-muscling Howard for rebounds and put-backs.

As a fan, I have never been so discouraged watching my team get owned in back-to-back games. The optimism was wavering, and everyone saw Game 5 as a mercy killing for the Rockets. Yet they responded with their backs against the wall.

After a Game 5 124-103 win in Houston, a different tone is set. Houston is still at a disadvantage on the road tonight, but they gained a little more credibility after adjusting to weaknesses in Game 3 and 4 blowouts. Their defense was rotating well. McHale threw Josh Smith in to the starting line-up, giving the more conservative Terrence Jones a chance to stabilize the second team. Harden (despite the flu) played with a ferocity not seen all series.

Make no mistake- going to the Staples Center for Howard and company right now is akin to an animal having to go to the vet. It's not what they want, but it has to be done if they want to live another game.

The iterations of Howard from teams past are dead and gone. The young, wide-eyed Orlando version who made fans "ooo" and "ahhh" with dunks and blocks out of bounds disappeared not long before his tense relationship with Van Gundy began. The veteran who outgrew his original team in hopes of playing for a big market contender eventually faded away, too. If his final year in Orlando began the snowball rolling down the hill, 2012 saw the snowball crush the city of LA at the bottom. No one ended up feeling satisfied. Everyone just wanted to move on to better things.

Now in his tenth season, Howard isn't taking things for granted. The entitlement he displayed a few years ago has gone to the wayside. In its place is a renewed appreciation and passion for the game, as by working with Olajuwon has proved old dogs can at least try and learn new tricks.

Los Angeles hasn't been kind to Howard in recent times, but tonight he and Harden must step up facing elimination. Franchises have small windows due to injuries, contracts, etc (as the Thunder could be a victim of next summer). There is absolutely no guarantee Howard will have a chance to get back to a conference final as he approaches his 30's- especially with his injury history.

If the Rockets can pull off what some would consider a miracle and win in The City of Angels tonight, maybe Howard can finally flick that devilish chip of winning when it matters in LA off his shoulder.

Like it? Love it? Hate it? Let me know @SeanNeutron.

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