Dwight Howard currently owns the Hawks. Tony Ressler may beg to differ, but the numbers don’t lie.
Howard returned Wednesday to hometown Atlanta, having been so unceremoniously dispatched to Charlotte after a single season as a Hawk, one that ended worse than “The Sopranos.” He played a significant, though not starring, role in the Hornets’ third victory over the Hawks (123-110) in three meetings this season.
“Got to get one more. One more,” he said with a little smile. No. 4 is on the schedule for March 15, at the construction site known as Philips Arena.
On Wednesday, Howard went for his ho-hum, usual double-double, scoring 20 points to go with 12 rebounds. His average against his old team thus far: 19.3 and 14.
Lay that atop Kemba Walker’s 38 points, and the Hornets pretty well had this thing covered both outside and in.
The Hawks did Howard two big solids on this mid-week reunion. No. 1 was a brief video tribute midway through the first quarter, a classy touch by a franchise that wanted nothing more seven months ago than to rid itself of the distraction it had signed for three years and $70 mil. From the Hawks perspective, it was just a little like penning a love letter to a lanced boil.
Howard was appreciative.
“I saw some of (the brief video). Coach was calling a play, so I really didn’t get it all. I was shocked that they did one. I wasn’t expecting it,” he said.
And then, unbidden, “I’m very thankful for my time here in Atlanta. It kind of woke me up, just being here, being at home and playing and it not working out the way obviously I wanted it to. After the trade, I got back in the gym, bearing down and got ready for another season.”
The second favor done him by the Hawks was matching him up with Miles Plumlee – one of the spare pieces sent this way in the June trade with the Hornets. That is a mismatch of Titanic-vs.-iceberg proportion. Howard recognized easy prey when he saw it, as he victimized Plumlee first on one of those little hook shots that didn’t fall nearly enough for him last season and then on a scarcely contested baseline drive/reverse layup in the game’s first 90 seconds, accounting for the game’s first four points.
“He set the tone for the whole game,” Hornets coach Steve Clifford said.
The exclamation point was a deafening, driving dunk over Mike Muscala with 4:45 left to play, one coming to a highlight package near you. This was highly significant just for the fact that Howard was sighted on the Philips floor in the fourth quarter. By the close of his time with the Hawks, that rarely was the case.
Oh, and he made four of his five free throws. Who was that guy?
Motivation would seem no problem whenever Howard reconnects with the Hawks. In the season’s first game against them Hawks, Howard set his goal as, “I wanna kill them. I’ll leave it right there.”
He has since backed off the homicidal approach. And really took the higher road Wednesday.
His homecoming was just a wonderful, Hallmark Channel-worthy experience. His Tuesday dedication of a new weight room at Tri-Cities High in East Point may have ranked even above winning a January NBA game.
“The high school was the best part, just being able to inspire those kids. It’s something we worked on all summer, and it finally came through,” he said.
“I love coming home, seeing people that I grew up with. This is where my dream started. It’s always going to be special no matter the outcome of the game, no matter what’s being said. Being at home is always special,” Howard said, making real nice.
Whatever blessings or ill you wished upon Howard after the Hawks shed him – and there was plenty of regret to go around – there currently is the peace in knowing that both sides are in better places now. The Hawks can go about their demolition work unconcerned about dropping anything heavy on their big man’s tender feelings. And Howard – putting up some of his more consistent performances in years, fourth in the NBA in rebounds and fifth in blocks – can play for a coach who has understood him since his earliest NBA days and a team that is bound to win marginally more than his former one.
Said Howard, “I think it’s all about opportunities and systems. The system fits me well, and I’m having a good opportunity to showcase what I can do. I still got more, our team still got more and we’re going to continue to get better.”
Hmmmm, an athlete who finds a second, third, or fourth wind upon leaving Atlanta. Have you ever heard of such a thing?
If there was any hostility at Philips on Wednesday for Howard – not that there was cause, for he was only everything he should have been expected to be – it was impossible to tell. There weren’t enough people in the building to mount a decent rumble.