Monta Ellis sprinted right at the basket, blowing by Trevor Ariza. Dwight Howard came to meet him, leaping straight up in the air, hoping verticality would once more be his ally. It's always a jarring sight, seeing an already enormous human being grow even larger, and Howard's cartoon physique was no less jarring suspended in air. Howard seemed to hover there, waiting for Ellis to unleash his shot, and it was only until Ellis released the ball that Howard's arm lashed out like a viper and smacked it disdainfully to the floor. This is something that Howard has done innumerable times during his career, but this rejection was different. For one thing, it happened in 2015, in the NBA playoffs.
In 2011, which is not nearly as long ago as it seems, it would seem anything but noteworthy that Dwight Howard would be starting and swatting shots in the playoffs, or that Derrick Rose would start at point guard for the Chicago Bulls and pace them to a postseason win. That year, Rose was the NBA's youngest MVP ever, and Howard, the runner-up, was first-team All-NBA for the fourth straight season. This year, given everything that has happened in the seasons since—a series of catastrophic injuries for Rose and a less dramatic injury-aided decline for Howard—the very fact that they were Game 1 starters was remarkable. That, for one game, these two made it feel like 2011 again was even more so.
The return of vintage Howard, who had not been seen in years, was especially striking. What always made Dwight such a fearsome defender wasn't his size alone, but how his spectacular athleticism enabled him to use it. In his prime, Howard could guard either party in a pick and roll—sticking with the roll man or switching onto the guard—with something like equal effectiveness. NBA heads praise Roy Hibbert for his savvy employment of the rule of verticality on defense, but even Hibbert credits Howard for fathering the move.
This is the Dwight Howard that stormed the court against the Mavericks on Saturday. The Rockets' first four points of the game came from Howard, the first via dunk, the second an alley-oop. Though neither looked particularly explosive, it's more important that both looked easy and natural. There were times this season when even getting up and down the floor seemed more than Howard could manage. To see Howard once more looking like the impossibly agile giant he is, and moving, leaping, and sliding all without restriction or stiffness, was startling.
Like Howard, Rose seemed sapped of his athleticism all year, and his still-nascent comeback from a torn meniscus seemed likely to push a possible return to his old explosiveness even further out. While his old self appeared in flashes throughout the season, consistency eluded him, which meant that those isolated good games didn't do much to inspire real confidence that he was well and truly Back.
The Rose who carelessly careened at the rim, contorting himself into unfathomable shapes to get the best angle for a layup, seemed, if not quite completely gone, newly earthbound and mortal. Rose's struggles, from a bottomed-out shooting percentage to an uncharacteristic surge in turnovers, all seemed grounded in the challenge of playing as this new player. Not only would his body not do the dazzling, instinctive things it once did, but Rose's brain was now tasked with finding out what it could do, on the fly.
In the place of the old Rose was a player who was...fine. This version of Rose was the one who seemed scheduled to appear against the Bucks. He would be a helpful player, and an important one, but not a balance-tipping one. The Rose of this season probably wouldn't win the Bulls a playoff game on his own, but at least wouldn't lose it for them either.
Against the Bucks, Rose finally appeared to stop thinking and just start playing. He raced through the lane, curling and unfurling in one single motion around the rim. The explosiveness he had clearly lacked this season returned with old violence; just as it had been in 2011, it seemed the easiest thing in the world for Rose to blow by any defender in his path. Rose finished the game with 23 points on 9-of-16 shooting and seven assists, but as it was with Howard, it was just as important how Rose got to those numbers: fluidly, easily, just how Derrick Rose used to do.
It was just one game, of course, for both Howard and Rose. In the years since we've last seen these players look like this, fans have learned to temper expectations and still hopeful hearts. Common sense and painful history tells us that these were not signs of a second coming from either player. The extraordinary may never be the norm for either Howard or Rose again; this is just the way bodies work, and how the NBA punishes them. But it was a reminder, if nothing else, of how nice it would be to be wrong.