Dwight Howard still needs an enforcer

By: 05.17.10  •  19 Comments

Dwight Howard (photo. Mannion)

Ray Allen and Paul Pierce put the ball in the basket, but the real MVP of yesterday’s Celtics/Magic Game 1 was Kendrick Perkins.

Playing on a sore knee, Perk had more combined turnovers and fouls (10) than he did points and rebounds (6), but Boston’s win hinged on his 1-on-1 defense against Dwight Howard. Coming off a series where he pummeled the Atlanta Hawks for 21.0 points per game on 84 percent shooting from the field (i.e., plenty of dunks), Dwight was held to 13 points on 3-of-10 shooting yesterday. That was thanks mostly to Perkins, but the Celtics’ rotating cast of bigs — Rasheed Wallace and Big Baby Davis — almost played a role. It was reminiscent of Dwight’s early playoff baptisms, when the Detroit Pistons were able to neutralize the young beast with guys like Ben Wallace, ‘Sheed, Antonio McDyess and Jason Maxiell. From the Orlando Sentinel:

“You gotta be physical,” Wallace said. “He plays physical. That was the thing we looked at in film of the last two series [Orlando played]. Guys just let him do whatever he wanted to do down there. But, no, we’re definitely gonna fight him.”

Boston won Round One.

They limited Howard to 3-of-10 shooting from the field, a statistic that doesn’t include the times Howard missed a close-range shot as he was fouled.

Indeed, the Celtics’ big men made certain to hammer Howard when he received the ball in position for an easy dunk or a layup. Howard didn’t record a single dunk Sunday.

Heading into the game, Howard said he wanted to use his quickness to force Perkins to move his feet. That rarely occurred in Game 1. Celtics players barely gave Howard any room to maneuver.

“I think I got into a little wrestling match with all those guys,” Howard said. “That’s playing to their advantage. They want me to wrestle and fight with them. That takes me off my game.”

This is nothing new. Back in December, when the NBA’s Man of Steel was getting routinely hacked by a slew of 6-10 villains, I wrote that Orlando coach Stan Van Gundy needed to get an “enforcer” on the court next to his superstar center, somebody to dole out punishment to the other team’s goons:

For every big man put in this situation, the easiest answer has always been to have an enforcer. It looks weird, considering the enforcer is usually smaller than the guy who needs protection — it’s like seeing Terry Crews with a bodyguard — but it works. Shaq had his greatest success when he had somebody looking out for him: Horace Grant in Orlando and L.A., Samaki Walker and A.C. Green in L.A., Udonis Haslem in Miami. It didn’t stop Shaq from getting fouled all the time, but at least he didn’t feel like he was out there fighting a solo battle.

Going into this season, Brandon Bass was supposed to play that role for Dwight, but Van Gundy refuses to put him on the court. Bass has played less than 10 minutes total in these playoffs; he even clocked DNP-CD’s in the Atlanta series where there was tons of garbage time to be had. Backup center Marcin Gortat rarely shares the floor with Dwight, and starting “power” forward Rashard Lewis rarely goes into the paint.

Even if Orlando gets to the Finals, this is going to be Dwight’s toughest series. The Lakers’ trio of big man — Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum and Lamar Odom — are talented, but not as mean and physical as Boston’s group. And should Orlando survive to face the Suns, Dwight will have even less resistance. But since it’s clear he’s not going to get much help against Boston, L.A. and Phoenix probably seem like the light at the end of a long, bruising tunnel.

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