The question for acting Hornets coach Stephen Silas was daunting: how long would center Dwight Howard be out with a dislocated finger?
“Last night, I wasn’t sure if it was going to be a month or two months,” Silas said after Saturday’s 111-106 win, “based on the way it kind of looked and the way it was popping out or whatever.”
Turns out, it was none of the above, although if Howard hadn’t played at all Saturday night against the Milwaukee Bucks, it would’ve been hard to blame him.
After all, he’d only played four minutes the night before, dislocating his left ring finger early in an eventual loss to the same Bucks team. And it must have hurt pretty badly, because Silas wasn’t sure if the big man would play even an hour and a half before tipoff.
But when pregame introductions came and went, and the lights in the Spectrum Center all dimmed and thousands of fans cheered his name, there was Howard out on the floor for the tip.
Howard looked no different than normal, save for a small splint on the aforementioned appendage. As for his play? No difference there either, at least not from the standard of excellence and double-doubles he’s displayed so far in his lone season in Charlotte.
Howard finished Saturday’s contest with 21 points and 16 rebounds, which is impressive enough on paper in its own right. But to do so with a banged-up finger – and also to lead a Hornets comeback from down 18 points – is its own feat.
“Dwight was a monster inside,” Nic Batum said. “When you play like that, that’s huge.”
Howard wasn’t perfect against the Bucks – he missed five free throws, had five fouls and turned it over four times – but he was a spark. When Milwaukee went on a 19-2 run to open the second half, Howard was one of the few leading the comeback attempt.
“We heard a couple boos,” Howard said, “and we were like ‘Man we’ve got to fight, we can’t just give up.’”
Howard specifically took that message to heart, scoring back-to-back baskets to pump a little energy into a lifeless-looking Hornets squad. Then he showed up on the other end of the floor, too, swatting a Bucks shot far from the basket – and engendering a roar from the anxious Spectrum Center crowd, one that far too often has seen these types of deficits hold.
Then in the game’s waning minutes, with the win still in reach but far from guaranteed, Howard’s baby hook with four and a half minutes cut the lead to just one, at which point his teammates completed the comeback. The 6-foot-11, 265-pound center wasn’t on the court when the final buzzer blared, but he was still smiling and flexing his muscles on the bench.
That image – a jovial Howard, kidding with teammates, celebrating a hard-fought win and his own performance, even with a splint on one finger – is exactly what the Hornets expected from Howard when they acquired him this summer. They expected scoring, dependability, rim protection and toughness. Saturday, they got it all.
And by providing all that, especially on a night he could just as easily have sat out, Howard proved how irreplaceable he is for this team and its hopes of stealing a playoff spot.
“He was mad at me for taking him out of the game at the end when they went small, super super small,” Silas said, “but he was cheering for his teammates.