Dwight Howard and Amar’e Stoudemire may be the two best young big men in the NBA. Between the two are 9 NBA All-Star Games, 8 All-NBA Teams, two NBA Defensive Player of the Year awards, and a Rookie of the Year trophy. One glaring absence from that list is the mention of a NBA championship. While the two youngsters are certainly talented, they have not held the NBA’s ultimate prize. Dwight’s Magic appeared in the NBA Finals last season, but fell short in their bid to overcome Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers. Stoudemire has been a part of great Phoenix teams that just couldn’t reach that next level, never making it out of the Western Conference Finals. However, with the talent level of these two players, one would have to figure that their best years were in front of them – or were they?
Both Dwight and Amar’e were heading in the right direction coming into the conference finals. Dwight averaged 20 points and 12 rebounds through the first two rounds of the playoffs, both series being swept by his Orlando Magic. Amar’e, looking like the “STAT” of old, helped his Suns cruise through the first two rounds, including a sweep of the long time rival San Antonio Spurs. However, things took a turn for the worst for both players in the Conference Finals. Dwight and the Magic fell behind 3-0 to the Boston Celtics, largely in part to underwhelming performances from Howard. In two of the three games, Dwight was held to 3-10 shooting from the field. He also reeled in just 15 combined rebounds in games 2 and 3. Also having rebounding woes out west was Amar’e Stoudemire. He averaged just 4.5 boards in the first two games of the series, and his failure to play defensive effectively allowed the Lakers to dominate the paint. His offense also looked stagnant, and fans in Phoenix were left wondering what happened to the Stoudemire of the first two series. Would these two players respond or were they mentally checked out of the playoffs already?
Amar’e answered his critics in Sunday night’s game 3. After averaging just 20 points and 4 rebounds in the first two games, Stoudemire erupted for 42 points and 11 rebounds. “I wanted to attack their bigs a little bit and get them into foul trouble,” said Stoudemire. That plan worked to perfection, as he routinely attacked the basket, drawing fouls in the process. The result was 18 free throw attempts Amar’e, with 14 of them finding the bottom of the net. He also had his hand in Phoenix’s zone defensive strategy, which puzzled the Lakers offense for majority of the game.
Last night, Howard had a coming out party of his own. After the NBA’s leading rebounder failed to secure double-digit boards in the previous two games, he cradled 16 on the night, 5 of them being on the offensive side of the ball. Howard also poured in a playoff-high 32 points and added 4 blocked shots to help the Magic avoid a series sweep. After the game, it was revealed that Howard received a phone call from NBA Hall of Fame center Hakeem Olajuwon prior to the game. “Me and him had a great talk,” Howard said. “He just inspired me to keep playing.” Critics have urged Dwight to reach out to Olajuwon for help with his post game for years. Could this be the start of a new working relationship?
Needless to say, one game doesn’t get it done. The Phoenix Suns and Orlando Magic still find themselves down in their respective series. Phoenix has the opportunity to even things up tonight. Orlando is in must-win mode the rest of the way. For their teams to have continued success, Amar’e and Dwight will need to have more games like their most recent outings.
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