Charlotte Hornets center Dwight Howard played his 1,000th NBA game this week. His sole reaction to that milestone Friday?
Why can’t he play 1,000 more?
If that sounds cocky, well, he earned the right to crow after this one. He called his shot Friday morning, saying he intended to “kill” the Atlanta Hawks, the team that chose to trade him out of his hometown after a single season. The Hawks accepted little in return (Miles Plumlee and Marco Belinelli) from the Hornets, in order to unload guaranteed salary this season and next that approaches $50 million.
The Howard trade has been good to the Hornets so far, even if they are still outside the top eight in the Eastern Conference at 20-27. At 32, Howard has still shown plenty this season, arguably his best since he left the Houston Rockets to sign with the Hawks. The future Hall of Famer finished this 121-110 victory with 18 points, 15 rebounds and a spectacular seven shots blocked.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Charlotte Observer
Actually, that could have been nine blocks. The Hornets’ statistics crew credited him with two more, but review by the NBA reduced the number to seven. No big deal, Howard said, so long as the Hornets won. This completed a five-game homestand, in which the Hornets went 3-2. Now they head off for 10 of 12 on the road, where they have won just one of every three games this season.
That late-night flight to Miami could have been gruesome had they not held on to this one. The final score was a bit misleading, in that the Hawks, 14-34 this season, led as late as the final three minutes. Shaky as the Hornets are in tight games (0-for-their-last-14 in games decided by three points or less), the last thing this team needs is drama.
Howard made the play of this game with just under two minutes left, blocking former teammate Kent Bazemore’s layup at the rim. That set off a chain of events that pushed the Hornets ahead by nine with a minute left.
Howard was playing with five fouls then, one away from disqualification. I asked coach Steve Clifford, who was an assistant with Howard in Orlando and Los Angeles, how much of a risk it was for Howard to go after that block in that situation.
Not much, Clifford replied. At Howard’s exceptional level of experience – more than 34,000 NBA minutes – that was a decision, rather than a gamble. Clifford has often said Howard’s savvy and basketball intellect are generally underappreciated because he entered the NBA back in 2004 as such a physical force.
“When you talk to him, he’ll talk about the timing and when he launches,” Clifford said of Howard’s shot blocking (he’s seventh in the NBA at 1.59 per game). “He’s been doing it for a long time. ... He’s played in big games and big moments, and he’s made a lot of plays like that in big spots. So you know there is thought that goes behind it.”
Clifford isn’t prone to hyperbole. What he witnessed from Howard Friday was a throwback to the days when Howard led the Magic to an NBA Finals.
“His basket protection tonight was unbelievable,” Clifford said. “I mean, there were four or five just phenomenal basketball plays.”
About those five fouls: Howard said he lost track. Rejecting Bazemore’s layup was just real-time instinct with the game in the balance. Don’t think, do.
Clifford said pregame he had no problem with Howard’s comments following shootaround that he wanted to “kill” the team that discarded him. Clifford said Howard has earned the right to say what he feels because he has the track record to back that up.
Asked postgame, Howard said that hanging out with UFC fighters this week (there is a fight card at Spectrum Center Saturday) helped get him a little extra feisty.
“I was talking about fighting and stuff like that, and I was just, ‘I want to kill them,’ and they took it and ran with it,” Howard said of a bit of Internet patter Friday afternoon. “It’s OK, I’m just glad we won.”
Most importantly, Howard said, they figured out for one night, anyway, how to be closers.
“We attacked the basket, (and) our guys hit 3s at the end of the game,” Howard said.
“We’ve been bad as far as closing games out. Tonight we did a good job of executing down the stretch.”