HOUSTON — During an early timeout in the first quarter, the Rockets played a tribute to Dwight Howard on the giant video screen hanging from the rafters.
Howard then spent the rest of the night giving the Rockets a few more things to remember, ringing up 24 points and 23 rebounds in the Hawks’ 113-108 win at Toyota Center.
Tim Hardaway Jr. heated up late with 23 of his 33 points in the fourth quarter as Atlanta came from 20 points down with just under 8 1/2 minutes left in the game.
But it was a game that drew most of its headline billing from Howard’s first game back in Houston after leaving the Rockets last summer as a free agent.
“I didn’t think about it like that,” Howard said. “I just know that we needed this game after coming off a tough loss against Miami. I didn’t really think about it like that. It wasn’t like, ‘Oh, we gotta beat Houston because it’s my first time back.’ I just wanted to win.”
Howard picked the Rockets in the summer of 2013, signing a four-year, $88-million contract with an out-clause in 2016. He spent three seasons in Houston putting up consistent numbers and sometimes dominating in the middle. But the Rockets made it out of the first round of the playoffs just once and his relationship with guard James Harden deteriorated through last year’s underwhelming 41-41 season when coach Kevin McHale was fired and he chose to move on to Atlanta. He signed a three-year $70.5-million deal to play for his hometown team.
Howard had previously had sour endings in Orlando and Los Angeles, but said his departure from Houston affected him more.
“It was a little bit different than other places I was at,” Howard said. “This was really a great place for me, despite how people try to twist and turn it. I had a lot of love for the city and the community and I would never change that.
“So whatever’s being said, I know it kind of hurt a lot of people. But I’m in a great place. I’m happy with what’s going on in Houston. Both teams came out on top.”
Howard made a key play by stripping the ball from Harden on a drive with 57.3 seconds left and the Hawks holding a 109-108 lead that lead to a layup at the other end by Hardaway.
The 31-year-old center said it was hard for him to take a peek at the video tribute during the game.
“I was trying to watch it,” he said. “But the coach was trying to draw up a play, so it was kind of tough to look up and watch. I didn’t want to mess up on the plays. I was very thankful, because that was the first tribute video I’ve gotten after leaving a team. So I was very thankful for that.
“In fact, I would say I appreciated my time here. I chose this city in free agency and I chose it for a reason. I thought Houston was a great place and I still do think it’s a great place. But the business of basketball, you’ve always got to do what’s best for you and I felt coming home would have been great for my career, being coached by a great coach in Bud and playing with certain players on this team. But also just being at home is something I’ve always wanted to do all my life is play in Atlanta. I have that opportunity, so I’ll try to make the best of it.”
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