By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 6, 2006
DALLAS, June 5 -- The Dallas Mavericks' Swiss-Army-knife forward Josh Howard needs a new nickname. His teammates like to call him "J-Ho," a name that seems to completely contradict the toughness and intensity of the third-year forward.
Howard walked off the Mavericks' practice court at American Airlines Center on Monday with his right thumb heavily bandaged, the result of jamming it when he got it caught in teammate Jason Terry's jersey during Game 5 of the Western Conference finals against Phoenix. In Game 1 of that series, Howard suffered a bone bruise in his right ankle but returned to play the next game, scoring a career-playoff-high 29 points in a victory. "If it wasn't broken or hanging off," he explained, "I wasn't going to sit down."
Outside of Dirk Nowitzki, Howard is the player the Mavericks could least afford to do without in the NBA Finals against the Miami Heat. Nowitzki has rightfully received most of the attention for reaching that next-level, supernova status and carrying the Mavericks into the Finals for the first time in the franchise's 26-year history. But the 6-foot-7 Howard is without question the team's most versatile and perhaps its most indispensable player. "He's the connective tissue to all the things that we do," Mavericks assistant Rolando Blackman said. "He's mentally tough. He'll ride through the adversity. Whatever the deal is, you're going to get Josh Howard whenever he steps on the court."
"He's big. It's obvious," Terry said. "The numbers don't lie."
When Howard scores at least 20 points, the Mavericks are 24-0; a statistic that is mind-boggling and telling of what Howard's impact can be if he's aggressive on the offensive end. "I don't know what that means," Howard said of the statistic. "I don't scratch my head. If my shots are falling, and I'm able to get to 20 and we win, that's great. If I'm not able to get 20 and we win, that's even better."
On defense, Howard has the quickness, long arms and wiry frame to guard almost any position on the floor. He can play on the ball, deter shots and battle for rebounds inside. Mavericks broadcaster and former star Derek Harper calls Howard "the epitome of versatility."
Throughout the playoffs, he has guarded every player from two-time league MVP Steve Nash to San Antonio's 6-5 daredevil Manu Ginobili to Memphis' 7-foot all-star Pau Gasol. In the finals, Howard will likely split time trying to contain Heat guard Dwyane Wade and forward Antoine Walker. "It's been my job since I came into the league to play defense," he said. "I have no problem stepping up every night and challenging the best player on the other team."
In his first two years in Dallas, Howard symbolized the Mavericks' considerable youth and inexperience whenever he flashed his metal-mouthed smile. In the midst of getting treatment for his sore ankle, Howard had his braces removed between Games 1 and 2 of the conference finals, but Dallas Coach Avery Johnson said he could see Howard's maturity before then. The Mavericks felt confident enough in his game that they were willing to cut Michael Finley last off-season and make Howard one of the focal points on both ends of the floor. "Josh has been incredible for us," Johnson said. "He has matured so much. He stays after practice, without me telling him. He really works on his game. You can see he's reaping what he's sowing."
Taken with the final pick of the first round of the 2003 draft -- No. 29 -- Howard has improved in each of his three seasons in the league, raising his scoring average from 8.6 points to 12.6 to 15.6. He was also considered for the U.S. national team, which will compete in the world championships later this summer, but had to back out because of a scheduling conflict.
Howard was asked if helping his team reach the finals has proved anything to the general managers who overlooked him in the draft. "That's one of the motivations that got me to this point. Being a guy that's been looked down on all his life, guys trying to write me off in college and high school," said Howard, who is averaging 17.4 points, 7.2 rebounds and shooting a team-best 41.3 percent (8 of 21) from beyond the three-point line this postseason. "It's past that now. I've gotten to this point and I think everybody should know. . . . I just try to get this team a championship and move on."