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Dwight Howard vs the Miami Heat: Key to Success

October 29, 2010

The ESPN hype machine has been maxed out on the Heat ever since that LeBromination of a charity event this summer where he announced he was “taking his talents to South Beach.”  Throughout “Premiere Week” I’ve been reading season preview articles and they all seem to pronounce the same thing: Lakers vs. Heat in the Finals.  Sometimes there’s a long buildup about how they came to that conclusion, but mostly nothing.  Some have a “can anyone beat the Heat” section and then caveat their claims by saying that Celtics are tough and the Heat don’t have an answer for Dwight Howard, but hold strong that nobody has a chance against the Heat.

I believe that the Magic have just as much talent 1-12 as any team in the league.  I also know on paper, the Heat flat out do not have an answer for Dwight Howard.  Their roster currently boasts an intimidating frontline rotation of Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Joel Anthony, and Jamaal Magloire.  Dwight has dominated “Big Z” the past couple of seasons and he hasn’t played significant minutes against Anthony (8 total games, Howard 34.8 MPG – Anthony 19.6 MPG) and Magloire (14 total games, Howard 37.2 MPG – Magloire 19.6 MPG).

When I think about the recent matchups against the LeBron-led Cavs or Wade-led Heat, I seem to remember a lot of collisions between LeBron/Wade and Dwight on drives to the basket.  Those collisions usually led to early foul trouble and limited minutes for Dwight.  Just to make sure I wasn’t imagining this, I went ahead and checked the stats from the last two seasons (thank you basketball-reference.com).

Opponent Points Rebounds Blocks Personal Fouls Minutes Played
Cavs Playoffs 40 14 1 5 41
Cavs Playoffs 24 10 1 6 37
Cavs Playoffs 27 14 3 5 49
Cavs Playoffs 24 9 0 6 28
Cavs Playoffs 10 18 2 4 38
Cavs Playoffs 30 13 0 6 38
Cavs Regular Season 22 13 6 3 38
Cavs Regular Season 22 16 4 4 43
Cavs Regular Season 19 11 2 5 31
Cavs Regular Season 11 7 1 5 32
Cavs Regular Season 20 11 3 2 27
Cavs Regular Season 13 15 6 2 39
Cavs Regular Season 22 18 2 4 38
Heat Regular Season 10 11 4 5 31
Heat Regular Season 7 5 3 5 25
Heat Regular Season 17 14 2 3 36
Heat Regular Season 12 16 0 5 35
Heat Regular Season 22 18 1 4 41
Heat Regular Season 32 17 2 3 35
Heat Regular Season 22 10 3 5 38
Heat Regular Season 15 15 2 3 37
Average 20.05 13.10 2.29 4.29 36.05
Opponent Points Rebounds Blocks Personal Fouls Minutes Played
2008-2009 Season Averages 20.6 13.8 2.9 3.4 35.7
2009-2010 Season Averages 18.3 13.2 2.8 3.5 34.7
Average 19.45 13.5 2.85 3.45 35.2
Points Rebounds Blocks Personal Fouls Minutes Played
Cavs/Heat Average 20.05 13.10 2.29 4.29 36.05
Season Averages 19.45 13.5 2.85 3.45 35.2
Difference 0.60 -0.40 -0.56 0.84 0.85

After looking the stats, it appears that my memory has failed me.  Dwight actually played about a minute more per game against the Heat and Cavs the past two seasons than his season average, so he played just as much as any other game.  But it does appear that he did get into foul trouble in these games, as he averaged about 1 more foul per game and had 5 or more fouls in over half of the games (11 of the 21 games to be exact).  That might explain the drop-off in his blocks per game average.  If Dwight is in foul trouble, he typically is not as aggressive when challenging shots.  Initially this doesn’t seem like a big concern, right?  Wrong.

If Dwight is averaging an extra foul per game against Wade or LeBron alone, what will happen when they are both playing against him at the same time?  Dwight is twice as likely to have these collisions in the lane and it will force the refs to make a decision.  And I don’t want to get into a discussion about superstar calls, but I’d say most of the time the ref’s decision is going to go against Dwight.  Therefore, theoretically, he is twice as likely to be in foul trouble against the Heat with LeBron and Wade playing together than he was playing against them individually.

I don’t think anyone out there will disagree that for the Magic to beat the Heat, Dwight needs to be on the floor.  If he gets into early foul trouble, it could be doomsday for the Magic.  The ramifications of this will be felt in a potential 7 game playoff series more than in the regular season.  Stan Van Gundy has said it over and over to the media in these “big” regular season matchups; it only counts as one game.  Four regular season losses really won’t impact the Magic much, but four playoff losses mean an early vacation.

For the Magic to be successful against the new-look Miami Heat, Dwight is going to have to play smart from the tip.  While the NBA rulebook states that a defender can legally jump straight up in the air and not be called for a foul, Dwight needs to understand that the refs are probably not going to give him that call against LeBron and Dwayne Wade.  I believe that Dwight needs to do something that I have not seen him do in his career in order to stay on the floor against the Heat, and that is challenge shots without leaving the floor.  If Dwight keeps his feet on the ground with his hands up, he will force the refs into either calling an offensive foul or not calling a foul at all.  He might not get as many blocks doing this, but he will be challenging shots and most likely force them to alter their shot.  Most importantly, he should stay out of foul trouble and stay on the floor to help the Magic get a win.

Long story short: It is imperative that Dwight Howard avoid foul trouble and stay on the floor if the Magic are going to be able to handle the new look Miami Heat.  The Magic are plenty capable of handling the scoring load when Dwight isn’t effective on offense, but the same can’t be said when his defensive presence is lacking or located on the bench.  Especially against the LeBron James and Dwayne Wade lower-your-head-and-plow-to-the-hole style of basketball.

Brian Serra is the founder of MagicBasketballOnline.com.  You can follow/add him on Twitter and on Facebook.

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