Dwight Howard tries to stifle a laugh. (Getty Images)
On Tuesday, in a post-practice chat session with local media, Houston Rockets center Dwight Howard faked a bout of narcolepsy after being asked about what he thought about his upcoming battle with the visiting Los Angeles Lakers. Howard, who played with the Lakers during the notoriously underachieving 2012-13 campaign, quickly roused from his snore session to slough off any suggestions that the Wednesday night contest against his former club would be anything worth paying attention to.
Sadly, he’s right. Not just because we want to see a fire-breathing Kobe Bryant attempt to dunk all over his former talent, or to see if a Steve Nash/Pau Gasol pick and roll could confound the former Defensive Player of the Year, or to wonder if Chris Kaman’s bulk could serve as a distracting force in the paint for the big man. Nah, he’s mostly right because attempting to talk up any controversy surrounding a player that was a member of the Los Angeles Lakers for 11 whole months is pretty silly.
Which is why Howard is in a cheery mood, as tip-off approaches. Dwight offered platitudes while talking with the media on Tuesday, but the Houston Chronicle’s Jonathan Feigen talked to others in the Rockets organization that documented his beaming spirits:
Howard is still often goofy. He was not, and is not, Bryant. The Rockets, however, noticed something else. He is similarly hungry. He has sought extra work, adding morning sessions with former Rockets general manager and assistant coach Carroll Dawson. He dramatically changed his diet. He has become an increasingly vocal leader, even jumping teammates when his side was losing Monday's scrimmages, an act that - blasphemous as it would be to say in Los Angeles - would be very Kobe-like.
"It's his personality to not be uptight," said Chandler Parsons. "He looks at it as fortunate to be playing basketball. He's going to have fun doing it. That doesn't mean he's not serious. It doesn't mean he doesn't want to win. He wants to win more than anybody. It's just his personality to smile and have fun.
"He's just a happy person. I've been around good teammates and bad teammates, guys who are competitive and guys who are not. He is really competitive, but he's a happy guy. You can't get him down. I think that's one of the things that hurt him in L.A. There was a lot of negativity around him and Kobe (Bryant) not getting along. Here, he's always happy. On the court, he's competitive. When there's a water break, he's the one that's going to spill your water and play. When we get between those lines, he wants to be the best he can."
Of course, Howard can get away with this. The Lakers’ inability to right their health situation has carried over into 2013-14, which is in direct opposition to how Howard’s health has slowly worked its way back to nearing 100 percent following the back woes that dogged him in 2012-13. Though he’s not back to his 2011 peak, Howard is clearly moving with more confidence, his per-minute rebounding and scoring totals have shot up, and while he hasn’t been able to do much with the Rockets’ disappointing defense (stuck at 18th in the NBA, a year after ranking 16th) there is still time for this thing to mesh on both ends.
We’re not trying to project, here, but even the goofiest of guys still house a bit of schadenfreude after a messy break-up.
The big man went out of his way to avoid a prolonged divorce with the Lakers, even flying back to Los Angeles to tell the team’s front office in person that he was choosing the Rockets as a free agent last July, but Howard can’t help but feel good at the fact that his 22-13 Rockets are lording over the 14-21 Lakers in the standings. The gulf between those two teams is certain to extend following Wednesday night, which will no doubt please both Howard and the giddy Rockets fans that triumphed when their prized free agent turned down the big bad Lakers last summer.
Howard and the Rockets better get it in now, though. The West is tougher than ever, with even the lower seeds looking like world-beaters some nights, the Spurs playing just as well as they did during their near-championship run last season, and the Oklahoma City Thunder looking to regain the Western Conference title that they feel they only lost to (Russell Westbrook’s) injury in 2013. Even Howard and his team would admit that they’re not at the Spurs’ and Thunder’s lofty level right now, merely ranking amongst the Clippers and Warriors as championship-level teams that still have so, so much to prove.
Dwight is back at that level, though, and that’s enough for him for now – especially in comparison to the dregs of his final years in Orlando, and the historic mess that was the 2012-13 Los Angeles Lakers.
That franchise – and not that team, with only four of Howard’s former teammates still in the Laker rotation – visits Houston on Wednesday night. It’s not really a reunion, and not even a rematch. Just another goofy occurrence on the NBA’s calendar.
Good thing. Dwight Howard likes goofy.
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