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Hakeem, Superman look to bond
Until he received a phone call from Hakeem Olajuwon.
That tends to happen when the voice on the other end of the phone is the NBA’s former dominant center, shot-blocking king and two-time champion.
Olajuwon just couldn’t continue to watch helplessly from home as Howard tried to muscle the Orlando Magic past the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference finals with the same mundane moves.
Superman needed help. So The Dream gave him a reality check.
“I got a chance to analyze his behavior. You see the athletic ability and power, but you don’t see a lot of creativity offensively,” Olajuwon told The Associated Press in a phone call from Houston. “He just can’t be afraid to open up his game.”
Olajuwon’s call, which came when the Magic were down 3-0 to the Celtics in last season’s series, pushed Howard to almost single-handedly force the series to six games.
Howard shed his happy-go-lucky attitude and became a one-man wrecking crew, giving a glimpse of all that untapped offensive potential so many have craved from the NBA’s twice reigning defensive player of the year.
There just wasn’t enough to show.
Olajuwon, given Howard’s phone number after meeting his mother at a Magic game in Texas, met with Howard in Houston immediately after the series. The pair trained for five days during the NBA finals.
They worked for three hours a day, drilled on post moves, face-up jumpers, baby hooks, pump fakes and even some of those famous “Dream” shakes. Olajuwon also stressed the need for Howard to be mentally stronger, tone down his playfulness and maintain focus.
“I realized I had an extra gear,” Howard said, “and that I could be more of a vocal leader and push myself to an extra level.”
And perhaps no longer be limited offensively.
After all, how could a 6-foot-11, 275-pounder with massive muscles and awesome athleticism not even be in the top 20 in scoring? The raw talent has been enough for him to be the first player to lead the league in blocks and rebounds in the same season twice, let alone in consecutive seasons.
So maybe another former No. 1 overall pick and slightly undersized center in Olajuwon, who led the Houston Rockets to a sweep of the Magic in the 1995 NBA finals, could help Howard shore up his flaws.
“He just needs to take advantage of his speed and quickness,” said Olajuwon, who helped Lakers star Kobe Bryant a year ago. “He doesn’t always need to power his way through people.”
Players and pundits have weighed in constantly on the need for Howard to improve.
Retired scoring leader Kareem Abdul-Jabbar called Howard’s game “kind of predictable” before the Magic lost to the Lakers in the NBA finals two seasons ago. Shaquille O’Neal’s has repeatedly taken verbal jabs, and now LeBron James moved into the neighborhood this summer with the Miami Heat.
Consider all that and it’s no wonder Howard reworked his repertoire.
Already this preseason he has displayed bank shots, fadeaway jumpers, faced up opponents and dribbled around them – not through them – with mixed success. He spends extra time after practices – and comes in at night – to work on his mid-range shots and free throws.
And that might not even be the most noticeable difference.
The constant jokes and overall silliness Howard used to display have vanished publicly. Howard’s pregame dance routines are gone. No more humming songs at the free-throw line. No more trick shots in the layup line. No more comedic impressions during practice.
“There’s no question he’s changed. He hasn’t broken from that (serious attitude) for one minute,” Van Gundy said. “He’ll talk a little in stretching, which is fine. But when we’re working, he hasn’t broken once where he’s goofing around.
“The one thing is when you are lighthearted all of the time and tend to goof around a lot it’s hard to have that credibility,” Van Gundy continued. “It has to be more of a habit and this year you could see it. I don’t think there’s anybody who has played with him before who doesn’t see a huge difference in his approach.”
Now if he could only improve his scoring average.
Howard had 18.3 points per game last season, his lowest since 2006-07. His average is lower than many of the games dominant players, in part because the Magic do not ask him to be a prolific scorer.
His biggest impact comes around the rim, a rebounding and shot-blocking machine anchoring one of the league’s top defenses. “Everything we do is built around the big man,” Magic forward Rashard Lewis said.
However, with few exceptions, Howard hasn’t been able to consistently carry the offense.
That’s mostly because his 59 percent career free-throw percentage often forces Orlando to abandon him late in games for fear that opponents will simply foul him. And he still doesn’t have that go-to shot when defenses clamp down and clog the middle.
Some of the criticism, though, may be premature.
While Howard is beginning his seventh season in the NBA, he won’t even turn 25 until December. So for whatever he lacks, his potential might only have reached “the tip of the iceberg,” as Magic assistant coach and Hall of Fame center Patrick Ewing loves to say.
And while nobody expects a week in Houston with another great center to completely remold Howard’s game, it shows that he recognizes the need to develop his offensive skills.
“He’s already the best center in the NBA,” Olajuwon said. “You want to see how much better he could be.”