Praise, and an appraisal, for Dwight Howard

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Dwight Howard.jpgLet me start by saying that despite what Mike Bianchi’s headlines would have you believe, Dwight Howard is not as great, as valuable, or as dominant as LeBron James. No one is.

But that doesn’t mean that Dwight isn’t great, valuable, or dominant in his own right.

Dwight Howard is, without a doubt, the most dominant defender in the NBA today. He alters the game in ways both direct and indirect on a play-by-play basis, and he has such defensive presence that teams simply must account for him at all times. One of the calling cards of efficient offenses is scoring in the paint, but when a giant with rocket boots that can bench press a school bus and has an almost ideal level of athletic coordination is standing in your way? Well, that task is a bit more difficult.

The scariest thing of all, though, is that Dwight hasn’t maxed out on his defensive potential. He can still improve his footwork, his perimeter skills, his judgment. He’s sniffing greatness as a defensive monster, and he’s only getting started. That’s frightening.

While Dwight may still live in LeBron’s shadow (who doesn’t?), he’s also the victim of a bit of an artificial hierarchy. Since the day LeBron James walked into the league, he was dubbed “the second coming.” His rise to greatness seemed preordained, and while no one could have truly anticipated the beast that LeBron has become, the narrative structure was already in place for James to rule the world by the tender age of 25. That’s where he is now, and that’s exactly what he’s doing.

As a consumer of the NBA product and the ever-growing hype machine, I have no qualms in saying that the predictions bordering on prophecy that have accompanied James’ career have made his story that much more interesting. The things he does on the court have seriously altered what we thought was possible, and though that may qualify as more revolutionary than myth-affirming, it doesn’t change the fact that LeBron is just about everything we’d hoped he be from a basketball standpoint.

But by the very nature of those predictions, LeBron must come first and all others must come second. It’s the side effect of feeding into LeBron-mania; all the other great players who happen to play at the same time as James may be good, but they’re not LeBron. When considering everything that James has done in his stay in the NBA thus far, is that standard even fair?

Hardly. But it’s the reality that great players — yes, great players — like Dwight Howard have to live with.

I’m not convinced that LeBron’s impact on the court is so far and above Dwight’s that they aren’t even in the same league. Far from it. James is the indisputable ’09-’10 MVP in my eyes, but that doesn’t mean Howard isn’t important, or great, or dominant. It just means that at this stage, LeBron is better. What’s important for Dwight is not that he’s the best player in basketball today, but simply that he’s making the best of his own unique talents. That’s what’s going to win games (and playoff series’) for the Magic, and that’s what, when all is said and done, will finally earn Dwight the praise he deserves.

Rockets bench hams it up over Andre Roberson missed free throw (video)

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Russell Westbrook might not want to talk about his supporting cast distinctively, but it’s a real issue for the Thunder, who trail the Rockets 3-1 in their first-round series.

Even Andre Roberson, who has impressively defended James Harden, brings a glaring weakness: free throws. Roberson is 2-for-17 from the line in the playoffs, including 2-for-12 in Game 4 yesterday. Houston even repeatedly intentionally fouled him late.

It was agonizing for all but the most partisan Rockets supporters – though even Houston’s bench, while at least implicitly mocking Roberson, appeared put off that he missed yet again.

Isaiah Thomas: ‘Mentally and emotionally, I’m not here’

AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast
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Isaiah Thomas previously explained his emotions in a statement, but the Celtics guard spoke publicly yesterday for the first time since the death of his sister in a car crash just before the playoffs.

Thomas, via A. Sherrod Blakely of CSN Northeast:

“Mentally and emotionally I’m not here,” Thomas said after Game 4, the first time he has spoken publicly since his sister’s death. “So I just feed off of what the guys give me. They give me a lot of confidence. I can’t do it without those guys. They believe in me. Being here is what makes me sane and makes me feel somewhat normal through these tough times.”

Thomas has played well for Boston, which won twice in Chicago to even its series with the Bulls, 2-2. It’s remarkable considering the heavy emotional burden and extra travel, going to Seattle for his sister’s funeral then joining the Celtics in Chicago.

His teammates have clearly rallied around him, and that surely helps. But I can’t even imagine how he’s simultaneously handling such a tragic family situation and the biggest games of his career.

Kyrie Irving knocks flamingo from Pacers fan’s hands (video)

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Pacers super fan Matt Asen brings his lucky flamingo to each game.

He also annoyed the heck out of Kyrie Irving by trying to hand it, rather than the ball, to the Cavaliers guard.

James Harden reveals he’s playing through ankle injury

AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki
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James Harden didn’t lead the Rockets in scoring in their Game 4 win over the Thunder yesterday.

He didn’t even rank second – or third.

Nene, Eric Gordon and Lou Williams each outscored Harden, who scored 16 points on 5-for-16 shooting, including 0-for-7 on 3-pointers.

What happened to the Houston star?

Calvin Watkins of ESPN:

Houston Rockets star guard James Harden said he has been hobbled by an ankle injury that occurred in Game 3 of this first-round series against the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Harden made the revelation to ESPN’s Lisa Salters after the Rockets’ 113-109 Game 4 victory on Sunday afternoon.

“It was pretty tough; we don’t make excuses,” Harden said in a news conference when asked about his health. “We just try to go out there and get the job done. You build trust, and trust in your teammates all year long. When there’s moments like this, guys step up and they did tonight. We have another opportunity in a few days to go out there and win on our home court, and we’re going to have to get off to a really good start.”

Many players are grinding through injuries this time of year. Is Harden’s exceptionally bad? There’s no way of telling from the outside.

But he didn’t look quite right in Game 4, and if he’s hobbled, that opens the door slightly wider for Oklahoma City to come back from its 3-1 deficit.