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Bryant puts new scare in Howard

By Tom Withers
Associated Press / June 6, 2009
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LOS ANGELES - Back in his Clark Kent days, when he was an 18-year-old rookie, Dwight Howard was welcomed to the league by Kobe Bryant.

It wasn't with a fist bump or handshake.

It wasn't friendly at all.

In his first game against Howard, Bryant drove the lane and delivered a ferocious dunk that still haunts Orlando's center five years later.

"Don't remind me," Howard said, playfully covering his eyes. "He baptized me, brought me into the NBA, and back to reality with one play."

On Thursday night, Bryant initiated Howard again - this time into the NBA Finals.

Looking much more like The Man of Steel than Howard, Bryant scored 40 points - his most in a Finals game - and the Lakers steamrolled to a 100-75 win in Game 1 over the Magic.

The visitors watched tape of the rout at their hotel before heading to Staples Center yesterday for practice. Orlando, back in the Finals for the first time since 1995, was way out of its league.

Bryant scored almost at will, punctuating each bucket by extending his lower jaw to show his lower teeth - a menacing look. The Magic hurt themselves by shooting 30 percent and missing open shots, and Howard was a nonfactor on offense with 12 points and only one field goal, a 7-foot hook shot in the game's first two minutes.

Howard understands he and his teammates have to do much more in Game 2 tomorrow night.

"We just didn't have any energy or effort," Howard said. "We didn't box out, all the little things. We can't control Kobe scoring 40 points, but we can control boxing out, getting loose balls, stuff like that, and we didn't do that. We have to come out with a better effort."

The Magic are no strangers to adversity.

They made it to the Finals despite losing All-Star guard Jameer Nelson for 42 games because of a shoulder injury, and they came from behind against Philadelphia and Boston to win series this postseason. Against Cleveland in the Eastern Conference finals, the Magic shot their way back from impossible deficits.

They're in another hole. It's not deep. Not yet.

"It's just one game," said forward Hedo Turkoglu, who went just 3 of 11 from the floor. "It's a long series. We've got a couple days to work on some things. We know how good we are, and we know what we need to do to win."

A good place to start would be getting Howard more involved on offense.

Nothing came easy for him in Game 1. Like paparazzi swarming outside a nightclub for a magazine cover photo, the Lakers' forwards and centers were everywhere he turned. Andrew Bynum, Pau Gasol, and Lamar Odom pushed him, prodded him, poked him.

Superman's cape got torn to shreds. The league's dunk leader couldn't get close to the rim.

And when Howard got the ball deep in the lane, one of the Lakers' guards would dive down on a double team and force him to pick it up. By the time he passed out to an open teammate on the perimeter, the lengthy Lakers were able to recover and contest.

"They're going to make it tough to get Dwight rolling," Magic coach Stan Van Gundy said. "We got him the ball a lot, but they're always coming with another guy. I thought he forced a couple plays and he made some good passes out, where we couldn't make shots. And when you're not making shots, then obviously the team is coming more and more and more."

"If you make some shots, you force teams to adjust and give you a little more room."

The ever critical Van Gundy's biggest beef was with his team's inability to rebound. The Lakers dominated the boards, 55-41, a differential Orlando's coach chalked up to lack of effort.

"I'll blame myself for a lot of things," Van Gundy said. "But I don't really have an adjustment for when the ball goes up on the rim and everybody is going after it. I can't really X and O that. You're either going to put a body on somebody and go get the ball or you're not. And last night, not."

Bryant didn't remember many details about his nasty dunk of yore on Howard, and he expects Orlando to regroup.

"They just had an off game," he said. "They didn't shoot the ball particularly well and they'll shoot better in Game 2. We'll face a different Magic team."

As for that dunking moment back in 2004, Howard says he can still feel it.

"Ever since then, I've had the flash of him dunking and hearing the crowd," he said. "It was like, 'Boom,' that's all I heard. I'll make sure that won't happen again."

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