BOSTON -- There are few things more dehumanizing than waiting in the locker room for a beaten athlete after a humiliating loss. There's not enough space, for one thing. Bodies are pressed together in a tangle of cords and cameras with bright-white hot lights. The smell is something like stifling subway funk on a hot day. That's just the press, mind you, never mind the dudes that just played a basketball game watching you jostle in a never-ending battle for microphone position.
So here we were, about 30 of us, maybe more, gathered around Dwight Howard's locker after Howard put up a lethargic 9 points and 9 rebounds before fouling out in 28 minutes. He drew five fouls in the first two and a half minutes, but that was about the extent of his contribution.
The Celtics attacked him all night in the pick and roll and quickly grasped the fact that he wouldn't -- or couldn't -- extend out very far, so they pulled up and buried jumper after jumper. Big men like Jason Collins and Chris Wilcox beat him for loose balls and in the defining moment of the night, Jeff Green went right at him and scored as easily as if he were DeSagana Diop.
All day long he had been bombarded with comments and questions about his willingness to play through a shoulder injury. It started in shootaround and went on throughout the day right until tipoff.
The great Woj reported that he would play. The Lakers, for some reason, continued to play along with their "game-time decision" line. It made them look silly, as if deception was going to them an edge. Howard was his usual shirtless self in the locker room, acting bemused by all the attention.
"Oh, he's playing," Doc Rivers said, matter-of-factly.
After the Celtics' 116-95 beatdown it was a different scene. The Lakers had been humiliated, and Howard had been forced to play through the fourth quarter when the game was out of reach and Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash had long called it a night.
Howard finally emerged and dressed slowly as the press moved in for the kill. In his one defiant moment of the evening, he sat down at his locker rather than stand, which caused the media mass to awkwardly lurch forward with one collective sigh.
First up: Craig Sager:
Sager: One of the big things you want to bring to this team is defense, yet tonight it was not a very good defensive performance. What's wrong with this team?
Howard: Ummm. Just got to play better.
Sager: You personally or the whole team?
Howard: The whole team.
Back to you E.J.
Your turn, TJ Simers.
Simers: So what do you make of all this? There's been a lot of talk about you playing, not playing and everything else.
Howard: Make of what?
Simers: The fact that you finally got out there, but it was a disaster in terms of the team?
Howard: OK. You win some, you lose some. We've got to move on.
Simers: Are you babying it all?
This continued like that for eight uncomfortable minutes with more questions about playing in a blowout -- "That's not under my control," Howard said -- until it got back around to the question of toughness and it was then that Howard gave his most expansive answer:
"People can say what they want to say but none of these people are playing," he said. "None of these people have injuries. They can say what they want to say about playing through the pain. I spent the whole summer trying to recover because I wanted to play through pain and show people that I'm tough. But I have to do that. I spent eight years in Orlando, never really had an injury, and the injuries that I did have were ones where I could play through it. And stuff like this, with the shoulder and the back is not something that you can play with and say you hope it gets better."
Somebody asked if his back was still bothering him and he said, "Every day."
Finally, mercifully, it was over. "Kobe's coming," someone said and the pack moved en masse a few feet to the right leaving Howard sitting there alone, a giant metaphor after a hopeless loss.
Kobe played it cool because that's what he does. He calmly dissected the game, brushing off the notion that his zero assists were a reflection of anything other than people missing shots and praised the Celtics for their resilience.
"It's typical Celtics basketball," Bryant said. "They all just put their hard hats on and they go out and go hard and figure things out. It always just seems like whenever their backs are against the wall, you know that's when you really see the best from them. Then they perform and step up and play well, just like they did last year. They made that playoff run, that's just what this team does. They kind of rope-a-dope you a little bit."
Whatever heat Howard is feeling now is nothing like what Bryant has experienced on a daily basis for the last 17 years. He's a master in these kind of moments because he anticipates everything that could possibly be thrown his way, including the Howard question.
"I didn't say anything groundbreaking," Bryant said. "If I had it in mind to send a message, I'm going to be black and white about it. I'm not going to be surreptitious about it."
Whether it was through subtle pressure, his own willingness or the stark reality that the Lakers will be without Pau Gasol for 6-8 weeks after he played through an injury, Howard put himself on the stage on Thursday and looked terrible. He had no lift, no mobility and no fight.
"The first game back is always tough," Howard had said earlier. It was the truest thing he said all night.