The last time we saw the Los Angeles Lakers, nearly a week ago when they were finishing off the small-ball Houston Rockets in the second round of the playoffs, centers Dwight Howard and JaVale McGee had been relegated to socially distant cheerleaders on the bench. An important role in a mostly empty, fanless arena, although not what a future Hall of Famer and a two-time NBA champion were accustomed to.
But this was exactly what Howard had promised the Lakers he was up for this season, when they took him back into the organization after his ill-fated 2012-13 stint left a bad taste in everyone's mouth.
In meeting after meeting with Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka, coaches Frank Vogel and Jason Kidd and teammates LeBron James, Anthony Davis and Rajon Rondo, Howard assured them he would do whatever the team needed this season. To prove it, he came up with the idea of a non-guaranteed contract that would give the Lakers the ability to cut bait at any time, thereby holding him accountable for his play and actions.
"It was about Dwight proving to himself he was ready for this role," Charles Briscoe, Howard's agent, said. "He'd lost pretty much everything. He felt like if he wanted to get anything back, he needed to start from the bottom and work his way back."
If the Lakers needed him to rebound, he'd rebound. If they needed him to be a cheerleader, because Houston's small lineups rendered him virtually unplayable, he'd be a cheerleader.
"Old Dwight might've had something to say about that," Briscoe acknowledged. "But his mindset this whole year has been about doing whatever it takes to win a championship."
They'd be happy if he could give them a physical presence off the bench, maybe draw a few fouls on Jokic and buy some time at center so Davis could play his preferred position of power forward.
On Friday night, in a 126-114 win over Denver in Lake Buena Vista, Florida, the Lakers got a whole lot more from Howard than they could have expected.
From the moment Howard came bounding off the bench with 10 minutes left in the second quarter, he changed the dynamic of the game. He started wrestling with Jokic inside as they battled for post position. Howard cut back door for alley-oops, drove hard to the basket, blocked two shots, created two steals and drew four fouls in his first seven minutes.
"I had a chance to get there once and always promised myself if I had a chance to get back there, I'd give my teammates everything I got and lay it all out on the line," said Howard, who lost in his only NBA Finals appearance in 2009 with the Orlando Magic.
Perhaps most importantly, Howard caused Jokic, Jamal Murray and Paul Millsap to pick up their third personal fouls and take a seat before halftime. Although the Lakers did not extend their lead while those three key Nuggets were out, getting those players in foul trouble seemed to knock them out of stride.
"I think I started the game really good," Jokic said. "Then I had three fouls, which got me kind of off."
Jokic and Murray scored or assisted on 29 of the Nuggets' 38 first-quarter points, continuing the momentum they had built in their seven-game series win over the LA Clippers. The Nuggets led 38-36 at the end of the first quarter. But the Lakers went on a 20-3 run in the first 5:35 of the second quarter, and never trailed again.
Jokic picked up two offensive fouls -- the second one after wrestling with Howard with 7:22 left in the second quarter -- and had to sit the remainder of the half. Although staying out of foul trouble had been a point of emphasis for Jokic coming into this series, this was the first time in his postseason career he had picked up three fouls in the first half.
Howard was so effective for the Lakers in the first half that Vogel started him for the second half, and within 39 seconds, he had drawn a fourth foul on Jokic.
Murray and Jokic each finished with a respectable 21 points, but Denver needs far more from its two young stars to upset the Lakers in this series. The pass-happy Jokic recorded only two assists, tied for his second fewest in any game during the 2019-20 regular season or postseason, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
Asked about how the game was officiated afterward, Murray lamented, "Just try to play through it. It's tough. They wanna talk about every call and have full conversations and try to manipulate what happens, but you know, you can't worry about that. We know how it's gonna be; we know we're the younger team. We're just gonna play through it. We're gonna find a way. We're not gonna go away too easy."
None of Denver's big men was particularly effective in defending Davis, who finished with 37 points and 10 rebounds. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Davis scored 13 points against Jokic on 4-for-6 shooting, 11 points against Millsap on 3-for-6 shooting, six points against Mason Plumlee on 2-for-3 shooting and two points against each of Jerami Grant and Murray.
How much did foul trouble contribute to the way they defended? It's hard to say against Davis, who ironically was named first-team All-NBA as a center this year, ahead of Jokic, because of new rules allowing him to qualify as a center.
Denver, of course, has a very recent history of coming back from series deficits, having overcome 3-1 holes against the Utah Jazz and Clippers in these playoffs.
The Lakers had dropped the first game in their first two series too. They'd lose Game 1, make adjustments, then win four in a row. On Friday night, it seemed they needed only one quarter to make adjustments against the Nuggets.
"These guys are extremely difficult to guard, and it's gonna take some time for us to figure out all the coverages and be sharp with them. We know the coverages, but sometimes it takes a little time to figure out a team," Vogel said.
"I thought we did ratchet up our attention to detail, focus, physicality, effort in the second quarter. I challenged our guys to be one of those games where we give up a big first quarter, let's go 20-point quarter, 20-point quarter, 20-point quarter. They responded to that. They definitely picked up the focus and had a strong defensive game after the first."
Vogel did not single out Howard -- who finished with 13 points, two blocks and two steals in 16 minutes -- by name for shifting the dynamics of the game, except to note that he has lost a significant amount of weight this season as he built his body back up following back surgery last season.
There weren't many people who believed Howard could contribute in the NBA again after that surgery, the second time he has had his back operated on in his career. So much of Howard's game -- the game that won him dunk contests and Defensive Player of the Year awards earlier in his NBA career -- was built on exceptional strength and leaping ability for his size.
But the Lakers gave him a chance, because like Howard, they didn't have many other options.