ORLANDO, Fla. — Down by only three points to the Houston Rockets with more than seven minutes to go Wednesday night, the Orlando Magic really gave their fans something to cheer about.
No sooner did Dwight Howard come back into the game for the Rockets than his hook shot was swatted out of bounds by Kyle O’Quinn. At that moment, those in attendance with long memories could have been excused for flashing back to 1998, when the Magic took down Shaquille O’Neal and the Los Angeles Lakers in what remains their gold standard for paybacks.
But in the final few weeks of the franchise’s silver anniversary season, there was to be no pound of flesh extracted at the expense of the leader in points and rebounds in Magic history. Reality and James Harden took over, and the Rockets pulled away to an anticlimactic 101-89 victory.
Arron Afflalo, who had a team-high 18 points in his first game in almost two weeks, admitted he didn’t sense ”anything overly special” about Howard’s appearance. When the 6-foot-11 center returned to the city he called home for eight seasons as a visiting player for the first time last March as a member of the Lakers, there was a concerted effort to send him to the free-throw line as well as a few unpleasantries exchanged between Howard and Glen Davis.
This time, there was no Hack-A-Howard. Six free-throw attempts in 31 minutes constituted an atypical evening for him, as did the zero in the box score under the column for blocked shots.
But Howard’s 19 points and 13 rebounds represented another day at the office in another win for a team which owns the NBA’s best record since the first of the year.
”Our defense has to get a lot better,” he said, no doubt alluding to the 32 points the Magic scored in the first quarter. ”But I like the fact that since the All-Star break, we’ve come out with a better mentality on both ends of the floor.”
Howard did the bulk of his damage in the third quarter, when the Rockets outscored the Magic 34-17. But it was after coach Kevin McHale gave him a breather over the final 2:23 that Harden went on a tear.
Harden’s 31 points, 25 of which came in the second half, made it easy to overlook that the Rockets held the Magic to a total of 33 points in the middle two quarters and finished with a 49-34 advantage in rebounds.
”Instead of us pointing the finger and complaining, we just stayed together,” Howard said.
The reputation he had as a complainer and someone who couldn’t make up his mind about whether to stay in Orlando still lingers. That much was obvious when a video of some of his Magic highlights that was shown at the end of the first quarter generated far more boos than cheers.
”I played here and some people are upset that I left, so they are going to boo,” Howard said. ”They are going to let there frustrations out, and that is totally understandable. I appreciate all the fans that did cheer and have been a fan of myself and this team from day one. I had some great years here, and the reason I left had nothing to do with the fans or anything like that. I’ll always be grateful.”
Magic coach Jacque Vaughn had the same sort of philosophical outlook.
”The great thing about sports is you can pay to get a ticket and you can come in and cheer and boo for whoever you want to,” he said. ”That’s just a part of sports. Some people are liked more than others.”
Yes, Howard’s return was different from those of Penny Hardaway, Tracy McGrady and everyone else honored this season before him. The memory of him scoring 40 points to oust LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in sending the Magic to the 2009 NBA Finals is as distant as ever.
And perhaps that’s not such a bad thing.
”I’ve grown the last couple of years, and it’s made me a better person,” Howard said. ”So I’m excited about my future, our team’s future. And it seems like with some things that are going on here, I’m excited to see the future of the Magic.”
The only Magic player remaining from his final season with them is guard Jameer Nelson, and he wasn’t even in the arena after coming down with an illness earlier this week.
”Me and Jameer, we wanted to change how people viewed the Magic,” said Howard, who was the first pick in the 2004 draft while Nelson ended up being taken later in the first round that year. ”That was our mission while we were here. And I thought we did a good job of that.”