Howard still has a long way to go

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Dwight Howard has the unfortunate habit of only playing half a game when he's matched against veteran teams deep in the playoffs.

This was certainly the case in Tuesday's Game 2 of the East finals against the Boston Celtics when he flexed his muscles on offense and scored 30 points even as the Orlando Magic went down to their second consecutive home-court defeat. At the same time, Howard played like the proverbial 97-pound weakling on defense.

In Game 1, he rebounded and blocked shots but was pathetic on offense.

Actually, whatever part of his game Howard emphasizes, his defensive prowess is highly overrated. That's because he's too easily drawn to the ball, yearning to pad his swat column. But the championship-tested Celtic big men simply slide into the spaces around the rim that Howard vacates, and wind up with numerous uncontested layups. This same tendency was likewise trumped by the Lakers in last year's championship series.

Howard still doesn't know when to make a full help commitment to ball penetration, and when to show and recover. And his current big man coach, the defensively challenged Patrick Ewing (at least in the NBA) is proving to be of less help here than he is on the offensive end. It's clear that Howard's in-the-post moves have not expanded or improved since Ewing replaced Clifford Ray (who happens to be the best big man's coach in the league). One also wonders if Ray's insistence that Howard work harder and longer than he wanted to had something to do with Ray's untimely exit. How ironic that Ray has been coaching Kendrick Perkins since then, and it's Perkins' manful defense that has contributed to Howard's befuddlement in this series.

Secondary results of Howard's ball-oriented wanderlust on defense were wide-open jumpers created when the Celtics' swing passes took full advantage of Orlando's skewed defense.

Even when there are no shots in his vicinity, Howard is routinely confused. Arriving too late on the scene to offer weak-side help when the opponent's power forward in fronted in the low post. And in an early fourth-quarter play in Game 2, Howard had his back to the basket and didn't see Tony Allen driving for an unimpeded layup until it was too late to help.

One is left to wonder what Howard is looking at instead of the ball.

What are his other routine sins of commission and omission on defense?

Proving that he's a he-man by dramatically blocking shots that have already passed their peak, and that have a reasonable chance of missing the target. Getting lifted by casual head-fakes near the 3-point line -- which he did opposite Kevin Garnett in Game 2, thereby allowing KG to drive hoopwards for a decisive dunk.

In addition, Howard's rebounding in Game 2 was woefully inadequate. Four of his eight recorded retrievals were made with no green jerseys in the neighborhood. Even worse, he allowed Rondo and Tony Allen to yank unsecured defensive rebounds right out of his hands.

Of course, one of Howard's complaints after Game 1 was that the Celtics were overly physical with him--and he vowed to be more-macho-than-thou in Game 2.

However, on several occasions Perkins simply shoved Howard out of optimum rebounding position -- as did Rasheed Wallace. Indeed, Howard tried to demonstrate that he was truly a monster in the middle by blatantly clobbering Paul Pierce in mid-air and throwing PP to the floorboards with an arm-smash to the neck. For this display of phony toughness, Howard was rightly assessed a flagrant foul.

Howard is also given defensive demerits for rarely throwing a hand at a nearby jump shot that he knows he cannot block; and for taking his sweet time getting back to his man after double-teaming the ball on the wing.

Forget about his being named Defensive Player of the Year by beat writers and broadcasters who are overly impressed by his shot-blocking stats.

The truth is that unless, and until, Howard can be a consistently dynamic force at both ends of the court, he doesn't have nearly the stuff that's necessary to lead the Magic to a championship.

Anyway, between his several offseason acting gigs, Howard is sure to find the time to work on improving his overall game.

You think?