LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Having played JaVale McGee and Dwight Howard sparingly in the second round of the NBA playoffs against the small-ball-centric Houston Rockets, Los Angeles Lakers coach Frank Vogel acknowledged he’ll need to bring his bigs back into the fold against Nikola Jokic and the Denver Nuggets in the Western Conference finals.
“‘Joker’ is one of the most unique players in the world, and one of the most unique players ever to play the center position in this league,” Vogel said Wednesday. “He can basically hurt you in all ways. He can hurt you at the 3-point line, in the pocket, playing the 4-on-3 game in the post, and obviously with his passing. …
“It does make this series a little different — a lot different, actually — in terms of how much we’ll use our centers. I don’t want to get too much into detail, but obviously we’re going to be the L.A. Lakers, who we’ve been all year. We adjusted to a small-ball team last series, but I would expect us to return to form.”
McGee and Howard played a combined 23 minutes over the final four games of conference semifinals — all Lakers victories, mind you — as Vogel plugged in Markieff Morris at the stretch 5 and also called for more possessions with Anthony Davis playing the pivot.
But L.A.’s size was a strength all season, as it led the league in blocks and finished ninth in rebounding. Jokic — averaging 25.4 points on 51.5% shooting, 10.8 rebounds and 6.0 assists in the playoffs so far — is the type of foe the Lakers will try to meet with force in the series that begins Friday.
For Howard, who was reluctant to even join the team in Florida as he took care of his children and focused on the racial inequalities facing the country, temporarily losing his spot in the rotation was a challenge. But he forged through it, along with McGee, turning into two of the largest cheerleaders in NBA history.
“Energy is very important, and if our spirits are down, like they always said, one bad apple can spoil a whole basket,” Howard said Wednesday, speaking to reporters for the first time since mid-July. “If we’re down on our energy, it can get contagious, it can go to another player and another player. We just got to look at all the positives despite what we may be going through — there’s a lot of people going through things that are way worse and that are not here in the bubble, so we can always find a way to stay positive.”
Helping him stay upbeat in the bubble is Howard’s 6-year-old son, David, who joined his father when the Lakers were allowed to bring family on to the NBA campus. David’s mother, Melissa Rios, died in March.
But when there are no basketball games to play in — or cheer for — the monotony sets in.
“There’s really nothing to do,” Howard said. “If I can be honest with you, there’s nowhere to go, there’s no way to release anything. Any feeling that you might have, it’s just like we’re stuck. So, just try to find joy in the fact that I have my son with me, the fact that all we have to do is win eight games to win a championship.
“So I just try to stay positive with everything. But it is extremely difficult, being in a location I can’t get out, can’t see family, friends. You just in the hotel. So that is very difficult, seeing the same walls every day. But at the end of the day … can’t allow it to really affect us too much, but it is extremely difficult.”
His team will try to complete the task of making it through two more rounds and leaving the bubble as champions, making the sacrifices worth it. But even with the Milwaukee Bucks ousted in the East and the Nuggets taking out the LA Clippers, there is no guaranteed pathway to the NBA title.
“I think with Denver, they’re just a great overall basketball team. They play well with each other. They share the rock. Move it around. Cut. Got great shooters. They got a whole team,” Lakers forward Kyle Kuzma said. “So, we got our hands full.”
And it’s not just the Nuggets, either.
“Any one of these three teams remaining can beat us, and the Denver Nuggets are a terrific basketball team. So are the Boston Celtics, so are the Miami Heat,” Vogel said. “So while we have players that have been there, we’ve not been there as a group yet. So we’re still super hungry to get the job done, recognizing and respecting the opponents that are still remaining.”