It was the best of Dwight, it was the worst of Dwight.
It was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness. It was the season of dunks, it was the season of turnovers. It was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.
My apologies to Charles Dickens for butchering his famous “A Tale of Two Cities” opening, but Dwight Howard’s regular-season home debut with the Charlotte Hornets – a 109-91 win over Atlanta – had the feeling of a substantial event. Howard’s “revenge” game against the hometown team that traded him after one disappointing season did not disappoint for the home fans at Spectrum Center, as Howard had 20 points and 15 rebounds in a convincing win.
Howard left to a standing ovation with 2:10 left, walking slowly to the bench like he owned the place. And, along with Kemba Walker (26 points), Howard really did own it on Friday.
I asked Howard afterward if he derived some personal satisfaction from the fact that this performance came against Atlanta.
“Ummm… yeah,” Howard said, laughing. “I just wanted to go out there and dominate them. That has to be my mentality every night, but there was something special tonight.”
Hornets fans are understanding quickly that watching Howard can send you through a whole range of moods – hope and despair, light and darkness – in one night. You make trade-offs when Howard is on the court. He’s going to have some turnovers (six on Friday), he’s going to miss some free throws (he was 4-for-8) and he’s going to foul (he had four of them only 30 seconds into the third quarter).
But Howard also alters shots, clogs the middle on defense and treats every rim like it once said something bad about his mother. He still can look like Superman at times.
The Hornets trailed by 20 and were playing terribly at one point in the second quarter Friday night. But then Howard was a large part of the extraordinary 24-0 third-quarter run that pushed the Hornets over the top. When Howard was in the game Friday, the Hornets were plus-34 in points – he was a difference-maker in exactly the way the Hornets envisioned when they grabbed him from Atlanta.
“I hope it’s just the beginning,” said Steve Clifford, the Hornets head coach and unofficial “Dwight Whisperer” who was with Howard as an assistant coach at two previous stops.
Howard sometimes draws fouls the way Shaquille O’Neal used to – just by being big. He had one massive follow dunk disallowed Friday when an Atlanta Hawk came flying out of the pile just before the slam. That foul was questionable. But on another of Howard’s fouls he simply looked angry and out of control, banging a Hawk into the floor when he didn’t like some earlier contact.
But then Howard had back-to-back dunks at one point, as well as demonstrating a baby hook, making a couple of catches in traffic worthy of an NFL tight end and walking away a couple of times when he disagreed with a call instead of staying to argue like he has so often in the past.
“I’m growing,” Howard said. “Back in the day, I probably would have gotten a technical foul.” (It should be pointed out he did get a technical in the first Hornets game Wednesday).
No Hawk much wanted any part of Howard once he got the ball within a few feet of the basket. Walker can intimidate his dazzling speed and stop-and-go moves, but Howard intimidates the more traditional way – he’s smart, athletic and just so darn big.
In the shootaround earlier Friday, Howard was asked about the perception he was a bad teammate in Atlanta. He answered the question by using the word “stupid” and saying all bad-teammate rumors were “false.”
One game doesn’t make a season, of course, and the Hawks, after all, have blown up their roster and started over. They likely won’t be a playoff team.
Howard, though, seems quite sure the Hornets will be. And on this night, anyway, he looked like the player who has made eight NBA all-star squads.
“I like where I’m at,” Howard said afterward. “I love this city. It’s been nothing but great since I’ve been here. This team has been amazing. And I think we’re going to have a hell of a season.”