Dwight Howard bound from the tunnel, the Lakers behind him, the team’s newly minted starting center leading the title favorites on the court.
He smiled his way through warmups, the sadness that enveloped him off the court a memory as he floated through the air for a 360-degree layup that he gleefully flipped off the backboard.
The shot never had a chance.
But if coach Frank Vogel hadn’t pulled the trigger on the long-pondered decision to put Howard into the starting lineup, the Lakers might not have survived Denver’s first-half blitz. And they might not have sustained a 114-108 win in a game they led for the final 40 minutes straight.
Anthony Davis, LeBron James and Jamal Murray staged a pretty epic shootout early, including a Murray layup that involved so much twisting and spin it could have a prime-time spot on cable news. But it wasn’t the flashy finishers or splashing jump shots that separated the Lakers from the Nuggets. It was the grit and fight from Howard.
When someone missed, and it felt like it didn’t happen all that much early, Howard swept up and put everything away. He grabbed eight rebounds in the first quarter. Four of them came on the offensive glass and all four led to putback baskets.
“Dwight was a beast,” James said.
Howard left without speaking to reporters.
That quarter reinforced everything that the Lakers could’ve wanted from Howard and more when they signed him late into the offseason. His make-good contract has been fully make good and it’s hard to imagine a 2021 NBA season without Howard in it.
“Nobody touched him at all in that first quarter,” Denver coach Michael Malone said. “He could do whatever he wanted.”
Howard never demanded the ball in the post. He never derailed the offense with hesitation. He never extended outside his role. Even if he could’ve been sharper on defense, he was simply the most physical player on the court.
“Dwight just brings energy,” Vogel said. “He fits what we want to embody.”
Howard hadn’t started a playoff game since 2018 and a conference finals game since 2015. He might not have been in the league, and almost certainly wouldn’t have been a Laker had it not been for DeMarcus Cousins tearing up his knee in mid-August 2019.
But here he was in Game 4 of the Western Conference finals, combining with James and Davis to score all of the Lakers’ first 29 points to help the Lakers weather a storm of Denver buckets.
The change in Vogel’s lineup was the most likely rotation adjustment on the table.
Before Game 3, it was clear that Howard and not JaVale McGee was the best option to open on Nikola Jokic. Still, Vogel elected to stay with the lineup he’s used all year. When asked about contemplating a change, Vogel admitted to it.
But they lost Game 3 and Vogel knew that energy would be needed if the Lakers were going to bounce back.
But even with a spot in the starting lineup Thursday, Vogel didn’t extend Howard past 23 minutes, instead electing to close with Markieff Morris and Davis in smaller lineups while Howard watched from the bench.
The joy on his face from earlier in the game was replaced with nerves. No one on the Lakers knows the fragility of all this better than Howard. Had it not been for the Cousins injury, he might not have been given the chance to rehabilitate his image on a contender — certainly not one that’s a win away from the NBA Finals.
So he watched and fidgeted, nervously celebrating when his team scored and exhaling with a deep breath when they got a stop.
And even though he was one of the first ones out of the building after leading the Lakers onto the court, he did his job well enough in between.