Charlotte Hornets

How Charlotte Hornets center Dwight Howard lived up to Superman nickname Tuesday

Charlotte Hornets center Dwight Howard (12) with one of several dunks Tuesday against the Chicago Bulls.
Charlotte Hornets center Dwight Howard (12) with one of several dunks Tuesday against the Chicago Bulls. AP

To me, the most surprising thing so far about this Charlotte Hornets season is center Dwight Howard has played every one of 61 games.

I realize Howard has a track record of durability. He’s played 71 or more games in three of his last four seasons. However, when a center is in his 14th NBA season, when he has a history of back and knee ailments, it’s only natural to assume sooner or later he’s going to need a night on the bench.

Wednesday in Boston could have been that night. Heck, it still might, when the Hornets try to extend a season-best winning streak to six games. Howard missed the entire second quarter, after suffering a rib injury on the back side of his chest cavity.

Howard wasn’t entirely sure he could play in the second half. He assured coach Steve Clifford he’d pull himself if he was debilitated. But what he did in the third quarter would have been pretty spectacular if nothing was wrong.

Over those 12 minutes, Howard scored 16 of his 24 points. He made seven of eight shots from the field. He blocked three shots, including the Chicago Bulls’ first attempt of the second half, a layup by point guard Kris Dunn.

That was pretty much the game: The Hornets outscored the Bulls 36-27 in the third quarter, and ultimately won at Spectrum Center 118-103, pumping a bit more oxygen at this team’s flickering playoff chances.

Howard sure looked like a guy determined to reach the playoffs. On a night when he had every reasonable excuse to sit the second half, he finished this game having made 10 of 12 shots. The Hornets outscored the Bulls by 18 when he was on the court.

Other than the technical fouls – he was charged with his 13th, and is three away from an automatic one-game suspension – Howard has been just a marvelous addition to this team. Coach Steve Clifford knew what to expect from being an assistant with the Orlando Magic and Los Angeles Lakers when Howard played for those two franchises.

The Hornets desperately needed rim protection, and he’s provided it. The rocky part was him figuring out how best to play with guard Nic Batum, and the alley-oop passes Batum threw Howard Tuesday suggests those two are finally getting on the same page.

If this wasn’t Howard’s best performance this season, it was right up there, in Clifford’s assessment.

“He’s played some really good games,” Clifford said. “He was dominant in that second half.”

That must continue over the last 21 games for the Hornets to have any realistic chance of reaching the eighth seed in the East. Howard had some spasms at the end of the first quarter that sent him back to the locker room. Following some treatment, he went upstairs to the practice court, mimicked a few basic moves, and declared himself fit to start the second half.

Hopefully, the long plane ride to Boston didn’t worsen his condition. The Hornets embark on a rough three-game road trip: the top two teams in the East, the Celtics and the Toronto Raptors, sandwiched around the first game of the season against the Philadelphia 76ers.

The Hornets entered Tuesday’s game as healthy as they’ve been all season. That changed quickly and drastically.

Small forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist suffered a left hamstring strain in the first quarter. Losing your defensive stopper is a problem whenever, but particularly so when this road trip requires someone to guard, in order, Boston’s Jayson Tatum, Philadelphia’s Ben Simmons and Toronto’s DeMar DeRozan.

Figure on Kidd-Gilchrist to miss at least a couple of games. Clifford said he wants to keep Jeremy Lamb in his sixth-man role. That likely means either Treveon Graham or rookie Dwayne Bacon will start against the Celtics.

The other injury involved backup center Cody Zeller missing the second half with a sore left knee. Zeller said post-game he didn’t specifically re-injure the knee, which required surgery earlier this season to repair a torn meniscus. Rather, the joint swelled up to the extent he couldn’t move properly.

Zeller didn’t look in particular discomfort in the locker room before leaving for the airport. Whether he misses additional time is an open question.

Howard is now the only Hornet to play in every game this season. He likes to be called Superman. I guess he’s more than earned that nickname so far in Charlotte.

Rick Bonnell: 704-358-5129, @rick_bonnell

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