Orlando Magic center Dwight Howard had arguably the worst game of his playoff career two nights ago in Orlando's 92-88 loss to the Boston Celtics. He scored 13 points on 3-of-10 from the field--one of his baskets was a putback in the closing minutes--and committed 7 turnovers. The physical defense of Boston centers Kendrick Perkins, Rasheed Wallace, and even Glen Davis clearly took its toll.
Howard said yesterday that he tried to use his power game against Perkins because the media often talk about how well Perkins defends him; in other words, he was trying to prove a point, and he may have cost the Magic some possessions as a result.
Since Game 1, most every expert from whom I've heard has called for Howard to use his athleticism against Boston's three-headed center monster. Howard even said it himself. As strong and skilled as Perkins and Wallace are, they cannot hope to keep pace with Howard when he's on the move, whether he's rolling to the hoop for a dump-off pass or just driving right by the defense.
When asked about defending Howard, Perkins may have unintentionally endorsed that idea. Via Josh Robbins of the Orlando Sentinel (brackets his):
"I have problems when you have to play against the quicker guys like the [Amar'e] Stoudemires, the Pau Gasols who like to face-up," Perkins said. "But other than that, I like the physical matchups."
Make no mistake: Orlando needs Howard's scoring. If he continues to put the ball in the basket, Celtics coach Doc Rivers will have no other choice than to send a double-team, which he does only in emergencies. That would, in turn, open the floor for the Magic's prolific three-point marksmen.
Indeed, fighting brute force with brute force won't get it done for Orlando. Because Howard does not have a reliable jumper, he can't quite face up as effectively as Stoudemire or Gasol. But again, he has the speed and know-how to get through these guys.
In any case, I took a look at some of the more successful offensive games big men have had against Perkins this season and tried to find a common link.
Andrew Bogut, Chris Bosh, Chris Kaman, David Lee, and Brook Lopez have each succeeded against Perkins. Not coincidentally, Bosh, Kaman, and Lee are All-Stars, while Bogut and Lopez are rightfully regarded as being All-Star-caliber. But how'd they go off against Perkins?
On December 8th, Bogut scored 25 points on 11-of-17 shooting. He shot 6-of-9 at the rim, meaning he went 5-of-8 away from it. Howard, away from the rim, this season? 42.9%. Not going to get it done, so emulating Bogut is a no-go.
Bosh followed a similar pattern. In 2 games against the Celtics over an 8-day period, he scored 56 points on 20-of-32 shooting from the floor, including 13-of-22 away from the rim. In the second game, he shot 13-of-13 from the line. The threat of Bosh's face-up jumper forces the opposing defender to play him tight, which he exploits by driving past him and getting to the rim, or at least earning a trip to the free-throw line. Again, because Howard doesn't have the range to keep defenses honest, he gets to the line because his opponents want him there; that is, they hack him whenever he's in position to score. Bosh? They're not intentionally fouling him.
How about Chris Kaman on December 27th? He posted 27 points on 12-of-21 shooting. In his case, he benefitted from his teammates' ability to find him under the hoop for easy scores. His teammates dished him an assist on 6 of his 8 baskets at the rim, which makes sense, because Clippers point guard Baron Davis averaged 3.6 rim assists this year, 6th in the league. Additionally, he shot a respectable 4-of-8 on jumpers.
But Howard has neither a face-up game nor a top-flight playmaker to spoonfeed him at the rim. Perkins has a weakness, however, and that is covering the big man rolling to the rim on pick-and-roll plays. According to Synergy Sports Technology, Perkins defended 51 such situations this year, and opponents scored 1.02 points per possession and 51% of the time. He rates from "Good" to "Excellent" in every other play type, meaning Howard's best bet is to keep running hard to the rim on screen-and-roll plays. Marcin Gortat, Howard's backup, has proven lethal in these situations against Boston. Remember, he shot 11-of-12 against the Celtics in last year's Conference Semifinals, with teammates setting him up for 10 of those field goals. Boston pays him no mind.
Interestingly, Perkins' next-biggest hole defensively is defending the small man on the pick-and-roll, so even if Howard's teammates can't deliver him the ball on the roll, they can still try to attack Perkins.
For fun, let's also consider Wallace. He's a different story. He's much more effective than Perkins is in defending the roll man, allowing 0.848 points per possession in 66 tries this season, allowing his man to score 40.9% of the time. Oddly, Howard might be best served posting him up. Wallace allows 0.885 points per possession in these situations and yields points 48.3% of the time. But with the post-up comes the risk. Wallace's quick hands and savvy enable him to poke entry passes or sloppy dribbles away, and he knows how to pull the chair out from under his man to force a travel every now and again. Those skills explain why 19.5% of post-ups against him result in a turnover.
And with Wallace, there's also the mental factor. Wallace has a long and perhaps even storied history of defending Howard. He prides himself on his ability to cover the NBA's best center, even at his advanced age; he does not get similarly pumped to guard, say, Roy Hibbert. He knows just which buttons to press, in a manner of speaking, to take Howard out of his game. So you can expect Howard to be less effective than the typical center in post-up situations against Wallace.
Happily, yet inconsequentially, Howard and Wallace have a friendly relationship off the court. Wallace, as it turns out, also prides himself in tutoring Howard.
In a way, the information from Synergy and Hoopdata only confirmed our suspicions: Howard has to keep moving against the Celtics to be effective. Going with the same approach will only lead to more empty trips. And against a Boston team that's clicking to this degree, the margin for error is quite slim.