The Mavs’ playoff hopes are undoubtedly dimmed, but hardly extinguished. That said, a couple of sore, swollen ankles are hardly the support that a massive comeback needs.
There are plenty of reasons for Mavs fans to be frustrated. Be frustrated with the exact timing that brought Chauncey Billups and Josh Howard on a collision course to ANKLE DOOM. Be frustrated that the Nuggets are not a good matchup for the Mavs, and are playing a completely different level. Be frustrated that Jason Kidd has swapped brains with your rec league point guard prior to each fourth quarter.
But in spite of all the frustration and disappointment swirling around a team down 0-2, there are essentially two Mavs, in my mind, that get a free pass. Dirk Nowitzki is one, and for obvious reasons. The other is Josh Howard.
I’ve seen Josh’s name cursed aplenty, and some of those criticisms have held merit. But since Howard’s return from injury late in the regular season, I’ve had few problems with his game. Josh has played far from a perfect stretch, but his rebirth through fire, while still injured, no less, could not possibly have gone any smoother…until this series.
In a lot of ways, Josh hurting his other ankle could actually be worse than aggravating his already existing injury. At least in that case he’d have one leg on which to stand. For now, he’s left with two useless stumps that can’t quite plant, a state of limbo that allows him to stand but not move. He can probably jog up and down the court and do half-effective demonstrations of his normal movements, but asking a player with severely limited lateral movement to keep pace with Carmelo Anthony is just cruel. Though, it’s worth noting that Carmelo’s narrative seems to unfold in ways similar to Josh’s. Of course Josh wasn’t birthed into the league with a gold star on his back, he fashioned one of his own to remind the world of what they’re missing. Both of those stars have been thoroughly challenged by life away from the game and on-court limitations, but Carmelo seems to be genuinely moving into a new phase of his career.
Howard hasn’t evolved (like Melo), he’s merely returned. I think that’s an important distinction. Of course, that’s not to say that his return isn’t measured with a certain amount of progress. Nothing fundamentally Howard has changed, but in demonstrating the willingness to claw out of his scapegoat role, he has demonstrated the very same attributes that made him such a charismatic rookie. That makes for a pretty significant turnaround from his on-court shift and off-court series of unforunate decisions. I don’t know if the chip is officially back on Josh Howard’s shoulder, but he sure as hell has been playing like it is.
We’ve seen quite a bit of Josh Howard over his career with the Mavs. We’ve witnessed his emergence as a defender, a scorer, an All-Star, as a liability, a question mark, and a dilemma. But the Josh of a year ago is a ghost. He might still haunt you, but there’s no substance to the specter. Rather than partying the playoffs away or stirring up controversy, Howard has made absolutely no commotion over his willingness to endure pain, put off surgery, and play hard. J.J. Barea got his five minutes of fame in the San Antonio series, but make no mistake: the Mavs don’t win that series, and certainly not in five games, if Howard repeats his playoff performance of a year ago.
As basketball fans, we have a tendency to criticize players for what they’re not, rather than appreciate them for what they are. But this is one of those times where fans on the whole fail to acknowledge either. Josh isn’t a distraction and he isn’t disgruntled. He is valuable, productive, and energetic. Isn’t that enough? You shouldn’t have expected Josh to grow into LeBron, Wade, or Carmelo. He’ll just never be as talented or as dynamic as his draftmates. But right now, he’s doing everything that he can to help this team win games, and that deserves some respect. His performance and grit have been commendable on their own, but the juxtaposition of the 2008 Josh with the 2009 model makes it that much more impressive.
So I guess what I’m really getting at is this: don’t misconstrue injury for inconsistency or inefficiency. The mere fact that Josh was on the court when had every reason not to be is a testament to his will and his rebirth.