The playoffs are a whole lot harder than the regular season and preseason; guys step their games up, coaches step their games up, and they're good at seeing what teams like to do and don't like to do. That's the fun part for me is just making (opposing) coaches look bad. —Utah Jazz forward Josh Howard
SALT LAKE CITY — Pardon the reverie, Jazz forward Josh Howard was saying, but back in the day they knew him. He had a name.
"The Spurs Killer," he said as the Jazz readied Friday for Game 1 of the playoffs. "That's what they used to call me."
He was a versatile, smooth-stroking young player who helped lift the Dallas Mavericks to their first NBA Finals appearance.
It was also in an era when Howard regularly saw the playoffs. The Mavericks made the cut in each of his first six seasons. But two years ago, after being traded to Washington, he played just 18 games thanks to a torn ACL. Even this year he has been hounded by his nemesis, missing another 18 games due to knee surgery.
But those first six years were something to remember. His scoring average climbed to 20 points. The Mavs reached the NBA Finals in 2006, with Howard starting 59 games. That rose to 69 and 76 the next two years. In 2007 he was an All-Star.
Yet Howard also made news in areas besides basketball and injuries. He admitted on-air that he occasionally smoked marijuana. He also got arrested for drag racing and reportedly passed out flyers in the locker room announcing his birthday party, following a critical loss. At the same time, he has also set up charitable programs to help kids.
Consequently, he couldn't have been blamed for taking umbrage when a reporter inadvertently asked him about being "sort of an unknown guy" on the team.
"Unknown guy?" Howard said, an eyebrow raised.
The reporter corrected himself, saying he meant "forgotten."
"Yeah, yeah," Howard said, "I'll take that one."
But even "forgotten" may not be the case much longer. With Howard back from this year's injury layoff, he could start ahead of DeMarre Carroll in Sunday's playoff opener at San Antonio. Howard scored 12 points and got six rebounds in 25 minutes on Thursday. Carroll also has played well down the stretch, but has no playoff experience.
You name it, Howard has seen it, including playoff series against the Spurs in 2006 and 2009. Dallas won both meetings. Now here he is, and here come the Spurs.
"I've always respected their organization and I just go out and play hard, no matter what the situation is," Howard said.
Howard is just one of several Jazz players with playoff experience, but there are plenty who don't have it. Carroll, Gordon Hayward, Alec Burks, Enes Kanter, Blake Ahearn and Derrick Favors have never been in the playoffs. Al Jefferson has only been there once, with Boston in 2005.
So what do you say about the postseason to a group of kids too young to know better?
"It's a lot different," Howard said. "I haven't really started (talking), but today and tomorrow, maybe I can show some of my knowledge to them. But for the most part, that first game is going to be kind of nerve-wracking, regardless of what they say. Even I'm nervous sometimes."
Howard said he expects to tell younger teammates that the heat rises in the kitchen, once the real cooking begins. It's exponentially more intense in the playoffs.
"I would say 100 percent more," he said. "In my days in Dallas — and I hate to refer to that because it's in the past — we used to say we had three seasons: preseason, regular season and playoffs.
"The playoffs are a whole lot harder than the regular season and preseason; guys step their games up, coaches step their games up, and they're good at seeing what teams like to do and don't like to do. That's the fun part for me is just making (opposing) coaches look bad. I always like changing it up. So if we can find ways to get the baskets and continue to play the defense we've been playing the last month, we're going to be a tough one for those guys."
They hope to be killers.