Dwight Howard

Dwight Howard says he has been different player since All-Star Break


Despite all the talk about his rough season — whether you attribute that to his back and shoulder injuries or his mental attitude (or, a combo of the two) — Dwight Howard has put up good numbers: 16.2 points a game on 57.7 percent shooting plus 12.1 rebounds a game.

In his last 10 games those offensive numbers are off slightly (15.7 points on 56.5 percent) but his overall game has looked better as he has decided to own the defensive end of the floor. He is grabbing 21.4 percent of the available rebounds when on the floor and 11.7 percent of the Lakers missed shots. He has been a defensive force in the paint and that has been key to things like the Lakers 25-point comeback against the Hornets.

Howard said he has had a new mental attitude since the All-Star break, something he emphasized speaking to Ramona Shelburne of ESPNLosAngeles.com.

“I’m a big thinker,” Howard said during a wide-ranging, candid interview after the Los Angeles Lakers practiced Saturday afternoon. “So I just stayed in the hotel and thought about the first half of the season and how I could do better for our team.

“And I just told myself, ‘I’m going to commit myself to being better for the second half of the season.’ “

The changes included improving his conditioning (partially through a better diet). And he said he needed to get back to being the player he had been in terms of style the past few years and try to take on more of Kobe Bryant’s mental attitude about the game.

But part of it was adjusting to the expectations of being the star center of the Los Angeles Lakers. In Los Angeles, the Lakers are THE sports story — they dominate the newspapers and sports talk radio. The Clippers have been the better team and you’re lucky to hear people discuss them on the radio; they are always the second story in newscasts.

Being a star for the Lakers is like being the quarterback for the Cowboys or the No. 3 hitter for the New York Yankees — there is pressure and scrutiny that is above and beyond other roles in the same sport. Howard thought he had seen pressure as the anchor of the Magic franchise taking them to the finals, but it’s just not the same thing.

Howard wasn’t ready for it, and combine that with him struggling to be himself through injury and you have a pressure Howard admits he wasn’t used to.

“Besides just the expectations,” he said. “In games, I mess up and there’s somebody in the crowd saying something and I’m ready to snap at ’em. That’s not what we’re supposed to do.

“But you look at a guy like Kobe and he doesn’t care about nothing but going out there and playing hard. That’s a lesson a lot of us have to learn — especially young guys.”

Kobe doesn’t fear the expectations. Look at the numbers and you see he misses a lot of shots at the end of close games — more than he makes — but he is never afraid to take the next one, and that is part of what makes him dangerous in the clutch.

Howard needs that attitude, and we’re starting to see it from him.

The Lakers are winning if not overwhelming — those were impressive late-game wins recently but it was against the Hornets and Raptors — and for them to start to reach their expectations it’s going to take the Howard of old.

Celtics president Danny Ainge on Brad Stevens: ‘He’s a keeper’

Brad Stevens

Celtics coach Brad Stevens has never finished a season with a winning record. He’s over .500 this year only because Boston came back to beat the lowly 76ers. He has never won a playoff game.

But Stevens – who signed a six-year, $22 million contract in 2013 – has plenty of job security.

Celtics president Danny Ainge, in a Q&A with Chris Forsberg of ESPN:

You’ve joked about it before, but are you ready to give him another six-year contract yet?

Ainge: [Laughs] Yeah.

You have to start thinking about that. Sure, we’re only in Year 3, but you can’t risk letting a good coach get away.

Ainge: No, listen, he’s a keeper. He’s great. He’s great to work with. Like I said, I think he’s going to be — if he stays in this game long enough — he’s going to be one of the great coaches.

I tend to agree with Ainge’s assessment. Stevens has looked like an excellent coach so far – implementing a sound defense, creating space on offense and communicating clearly with his players.

But Stevens has benefited tremendously from low expectations, arriving in Boston after Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen retired. Expectations sunk even lower when the Celtics traded Rajon Rondo last season.

That’s when Stevens appeared to do his best work, guiding a starless team to a 24-12 finish.

Expectations will keep rising, though. Some expected the Celtics to break out this year, but they’re just 8-7. Stevens faces the difficult task of managing a rotation full of pretty good – but no great – players. This might be his hardest NBA assignment yet.

Stevens has done plenty to earn praise from his boss. But to actually get a contract extension, he’ll have to keep meeting higher and higher expectations.

I believe Stevens is up to the challenge, but I’m not completely certain of it. He wouldn’t be the first coach to impress early in his tenure and then fizzle. Just look at how many Coach of the Year winners lost their jobs a short time later.

Again, I think Stevens will meet any reasonable expectations he faces. He just must actually do it to get a longer deal.

League executives, players wince watching this Kobe Bryant

Kobe Bryant
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Over the last few days, we’ve written in more detail about Kobe Bryant‘s shooting troubles. He’s jacking up threes his fastest pace ever, he can’t create space to get off clean shots, he’s hitting 31.1 percent overall and 19.5 percent from three. There are flashes of vintage Kobe, but they are fleeting (and mostly because poor shot choices are falling). Byron Scott is still in Kobe’s corner, saying they just need to get the veteran better looks.

However, talk to people around the league about Kobe and you hear some variation of the phrase “hard to watch.” After 20 seasons, more than 55,000 minutes on the court, and coming off two major injuries, Kobe clearly is not the same player everyone admired for so long.

Over at the Los Angeles Times Mike Bresnahan and Broderick Turner got a number of sources to wince about Kobe for a story — except nobody wanted their name attached to attacking a legend of the game.

“Man, I don’t want to see Kobe go out like this, looking this bad and not able to do what he once could do,” said a retired guard who faced Bryant. “He doesn’t have anything else to prove to anybody. He was one of the greatest. I know he’s owed that $25 million, but he should just walk away now. He ain’t got it anymore.”

“He’s one of the few players in NBA history to have gotten everything possible out of his body. Now his body has nothing left to give,” (an Eastern Conference executive) said. “But that’s life in the NBA, in professional sports. At some point, the body just can’t do it anymore and Kobe’s body can’t do it anymore.”

One West scout said Bryant looked “disinterested” at times. A current player in the West went a step further.

“Yeah, I’ve seen him play and it’s disgusting,” he said. “He’s one of the best of all time. But he really hasn’t played that much in the last two or three years. He’s got nothing left. It’s sad to watch because he used to be so great, and I mean great.”

Kobe is not going to walk away mid-season, and nobody wants an injury to force him out of the game.

But it’s hard to see how anything is going to dramatically change. Kobe may shoot a little better than his current but it’s not likely going to change in a meaningful way. Which will just make things hard to watch for a full season.

Spurs to give Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili Friday night off in Denver

Manu Ginobili, Harrison Barnes, Tim Duncan
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The Spurs are 12-3 and comfortably in second place in the West, they have the best defense in the NBA allowing just 93.8 points per 100 possessions, and they have a top-10 offense to go with it.

So, time to start making sure guys are rested.

That is the first night of a back-to-back, with former Spurs’ assistant coach Mike Budenholzer and his Atlanta Hawks coming to San Antonio on Saturday. Popovich is saving his two veterans for that game.

Duncan and Ginobili have looked like they found the fountain of youth this season. Duncan is taking on less of the offense but has been very efficient in those moments. Ginobili has the impact he did a few years back in his bench role.

What Gregg Popovich cares about is them playing like that come the postseason. So they will rest on Friday.

Brandon Armstrong impersonates Ray Allen (video)

2014 NBA Finals - Game Five
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Ray Allen is retired-ish, but he’ll always be running through screens – in our mind and in this video.