In a lot of ways, Dwight Howard is the new Shaquille O’Neal.
At 24 years old, Dwight is the most physically dominant player in the NBA, and should be for the next six years at least, matching Shaq’s reign of terror in the League. Then there’s the whole “Superman” thing. There’s also the fact that Dwight needs to work on his free throws, and that Dwight can be a marketing/media giant with his infectious personality. Oh, and Dwight’s baby’s mom is co-starring on VH1′s “Basketball Wives” with Shaq’s ex-wife. (Which I watched another episode of last night and lost a little respect for Eric Williams.)
Another thing Dwight has in common with Shaq is that NBA referees have no idea how to call his games. Even more than his free throws or his much-criticized skills scoring in the post, foul trouble has consistently been Dwight’s biggest handicap in the League. It’s like the more dominant and famous he gets, the refs slap him with even more ticky-tack calls. Usually it goes the other way when you’re a superstar: For example, I don’t think LeBron is going to foul out of a game for the rest of his career.
Last night’s Magic/Bobcats matchup was another case of the refs not knowing how to deal with Dwight. He got his first foul when Theo Ratliff was literally hugging him in full view of the refs, but no whistle blew until Dwight used an elbow to free himself. His third foul was also pretty weak, and then Dwight picked up his fourth when he blocked Gerald Wallace at the rim but the refs called him for body contact. I’ve seen plenty of similar plays where dudes like Joel Anthony would get away with that; you expect a superstar like Dwight to get away with it, too.
Just like in Shaq’s prime, the refs can’t figure it out because Dwight is so strong and so physical. Football fans know you can call a penalty on every single play in the NFL — it’s just a matter of how strictly you want to enforce the rulebook and how much you’re willing to slow down the game — and that’s how it is with Dwight and Shaq. When they’re banging in the post against somebody trying to establish position, where do you draw the line on what is a foul and what isn’t? When defenders are hacking Dwight but the contact doesn’t seem to faze him, is it still a foul? Deliver that same blow to Jerryd Bayless and he’s out for two weeks, but Dwight absorbs it, so do you make the call? If you called every by-the-book foul involving Dwight, he’d either foul out before halftime, or he’d be shooting 20 free throws every game.
The Bobcats have decided to get physical with Dwight in this series, and through the first two games (both Orlando wins), they have successfully kept him in foul trouble and kept his scoring down. Last night Dwight scored 15 points, while in Game 1 he had just five points.
And according to Gerald Wallace, the ‘Cats are only going to get more physical.
“We gotta be more physical, more aggressive,” Wallace said in the Orlando Sentinel after Game 2. “If the referees are gonna let us play, we gotta play.”
Charlotte’s Stephen Jackson added that the Magic have been the more aggressive and physical team so far, even saying Orlando is “out there playing like they want to win more than we do.” Going back home, you know a fiery competitor like Capt. Jack will get on his teammates about bringing the fight to Orlando. And seeing as Dwight is basically the Magic’s only interior threat, and big guys are the ones typically looked at when a team wants to get more physical, you can do the math.
Larry Brown also suggested the Bobcats “maybe gotta get more respect,” hinting at the free-throw discrepancy. Wallace also said his team wasn’t attacking the basket as much because they weren’t getting calls.
So when the series moves back to Charlotte, with the ‘Cats now backed into a corner, expect Dwight to take even more punishment. And expect the Bobcats to take the ball to the rim and challenge him. It’s going to be tough for the refs to figure this one out.