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The Mav Who Makes the Difference
January 22, 2007
If the league's winningest team is to take the final step to an NBA title, no player will be as crucial as forward Josh Howard, who has established himself as Dirk Nowitzki's righthand man
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January 22, 2007

The Mav Who Makes The Difference

If the league's winningest team is to take the final step to an NBA title, no player will be as crucial as forward Josh Howard, who has established himself as Dirk Nowitzki's righthand man

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The NBA's best team draws its energy from multiple sources. Dirk Nowitzki, the Dallas Mavericks' franchise superstar, pumps his fist and scrunches his face into a fearsome Teutonic scowl as he drains jump shot after jump shot. Sixth man Jerry Stackhouse, a gentleman off the court, can turn thuggish between the lines; witness a game at Utah on Jan. 9 in which he collected a technical foul for engaging in a memorable verbal exchange with combative Jazz coach Jerry Sloan and a flagrant foul that resulted in an automatic ejection. "[The Jazz] play a fake physical game," Stackhouse said afterward. "Coward basketball."

Dallas coach Avery Johnson, loud and emphatic in his pronouncements, is famously kinetic as he marches up and down the sideline waving his arms--a cross between a tent preacher and a symphony conductor. And though the dotcom billionaire who owns the team has been much quieter this season, vowing (facetiously, it must be assumed) to play by the rules of "David Stern University," there is always a chance that Mark Cuban will surface to stir the pot.

The Mavs' most consistent source of energy, however, is Josh Howard, a 6'7" small forward who wears on his left pectoral muscles the street address (1500) of his grandmother's house in Winston-Salem, N.C., where he grew up. Under that homespun tattoo beats a hungry heart. And it is Howard--drafted with the final pick of the first round in 2003 even though he was the ACC player of the year and a first-team All-America at Wake Forest--who has come to embody the team that has evolved under the hard-boiled stewardship of Johnson.

"Obviously we don't get to the level we've gotten to without Dirk," says Johnson of Nowitzki, who finished third in MVP voting a year ago and at week's end was averaging 24.8 points this season. "But Josh is our juice and our engine. If he isn't going full steam ahead--and most of the time he is--we can break down." Says Nowitzki, "Josh has always had the attitude, I'm going to be a great player. I'm not surprised by anything he's done."

Howard's performance reflects the divergent paths taken by the 2006 NBA finalists. The champion Miami Heat elected to play a pat hand and through Sunday had the seventh-best record (17--19) in the execrable Eastern Conference. By contrast, the Mavs, beaten 4--2 in the Finals, have deepened their roster and their resolve, and gotten improved, multifaceted play from the 26-year-old Howard, who has taken to heart the ambitious goals Johnson gave him before the season: 18 points, eight rebounds, six assists and four steals per game. All those numbers would be career highs by quite a lot. "It's just a gauge," says Johnson. "Something to think about after the game when Josh is looking at the stat sheet."

Howard looks at it too, especially the steals total (he was averaging 1.23 at week's end), for defense has always been his calling card. As a rookie with Dallas, he had to vie for minutes with offensive-minded players such as Nowitzki, Michael Finley, Antawn Jamison and Antoine Walker. "The only way I made it to the floor," he says, "was through defense and rebounding." Indeed, through Sunday, Howard was well within reach of Johnson's goal for rebounds, with an average of 7.1. He might be the best rebounding small forward in the league, particularly at the offensive end, where he had grabbed 2.0 per game.

J-Ho, as teammates call him (if there's one sports nickname that has to go, that's it), won't come close in assists, however, not with two ball handling guards ( Devin Harris and Jason Terry) in the starting lineup and a superstar ( Nowitzki) who often creates his own shots. "Assists is the hard one," says Howard, who has averaged only 1.9. "But I think the idea was to have me try to dish off when I draw double teams. That's what I've been trying to do." The big surprise has been his scoring, which has risen from last year's 15.6 points per game to 19.0. He has passed Terry to become the Mavs' second-biggest threat behind Nowitzki.

All that versatility has made Howard a viable All-Star candidate, despite the wealth of talented forwards in the Western Conference. "I don't pay any attention to who's an All-Star and who isn't," says Sloan, "but all I know is that Howard can beat you about six different ways, so that means he's pretty damn good."

Howard wasn't the only player Johnson challenged with goals. The coach gave Harris a list of every other starting point guard in the West and told Harris he wanted him to be the best defender. ( Harris has the list taped to his locker in American Airlines Center.) He told Nowitzki that he needs to get at least two offensive rebounds a game. (He was at 1.5 through Sunday.) Johnson told the team that he wants more attention paid to scouting reports and opponents' tendencies. "I gotta admit I didn't think about them much before," says Howard, who should one day be an all-league defender, "but they're really helping now."

Meanwhile, Donn Nelson, president of basketball operations and general manager, has reworked the end of the rotation, adding free-agent swingman Devean George, who earned three rings as a Los Angeles Laker; bringing defensive-minded guard Greg Buckner back to Dallas as a free agent; and trading for 6'10" forward Austin Croshere, who can hit the boards and three-point shots, from the Pacers.

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