He’d never been to the Super Bowl.
“Two of my favorite teams, and my hometown team is in it,” Dwight Howard said Thursday. “I was like, I’ve got to go this year. From just being here, it’s been crazy. I know the Finals was crazy, but this is it. This is unbelievable. I’ve got tickets. We’ll be down on the field before and after the game, so it’s an opportunity of a lifetime. This is amazing.”
Somehow, over the years, Howard became a New England Patriots fan. And, this season, his hometown Atlanta Falcons were in the big game. So Howard flew himself and a few Atlanta Hawks teammates back to Houston, where they’d staged one of the NBA season’s most ridiculous comebacks just 72 hours earlier in coming from 20 down in the fourth to beat the Houston Rockets behind Tim Hardaway, Jr.’s incredible performance, to watch Super Bowl 51 at NRG Stadium.
The sights, the sounds of a championship on the line … they were familiar to Howard, now 31 and almost eight years removed from his first -- and, only -- Finals appearance. Back then, he had suspension bridge cables for legs and inhaled most every shot in a 12-block radius, a three-time Defensive Player of the Year who destroyed opponents from the inside out.
Now? He’s still in great shape. He’s still capable of “Superman” moments, like the 24-point, 23-rebound clubbing he put on the Rockets Thursday. But the game has changed dramatically. Even though the Stan Van Gundy-coached Magic were one of the first teams in the modern era to truly use the 3-pointer as a weapon by surrounding Howard with shooters like Rashard Lewis at the stretch four, today’s teams dwarf the 3-point attempts Orlando shot back then.
The future is in Houston, where Howard’s former teammate, James Harden, is orchestrating a nightly fusillade of 3-pointers.
But the future is still never promised, to anyone.
“Man, this is just an unbelievable experience for the Falcons and for a lot of those guys,” Howard said. “So if there was one piece of advice I could give them, I’ve been to the Finals before, but I haven’t been back. And I would love to go back every year. But it doesn’t happen that way. So take advantage of the moment, and enjoy it. But at the same time, don’t say ‘well, we can get back.’ Don’t say, ‘well, next year, it could be better.’ This moment is the only moment that matters.”
That this was all happening in Houston was just Fate showing off.
Last week was Howard’s first time returning to Houston since he left the Rockets last summer and signed a three-year, $70.5 million deal with the Hawks. His departure from Houston ushered in the full flowering of GM Daryl Morey’s vision of four-out, one-(barely) in basketball, centered around coach Mike D’Antoni’s offense and Harden’s wizardry with the ball. The Rockets have been an offensive juggernaut en route to a 37-17 record, with Harden on the shortlist for MVP this season as Houston has become a legit title contender.
Howard came to Houston himself, of course, looking for that championship in 2013, leaving a contentious relationship as a member of the Los Angeles Lakers with Kobe Bryant (and D’Antoni, not Howard’s first choice to coach him) to play with Harden, Chandler Parsons and Jeremy Lin.
"I thought me and James [Harden] would have been very special together. He was one of the reasons I chose the city. But things don’t always end up the way we want them to. But I’m very happy for James and his success as an individual. His play has been amazing all year.”
Even after Parsons left for Dallas via free agency and the Rockets dumped Lin in the summer of ’14 to the Lakers to create cap space -- but failed to secure Chris Bosh from Miami -- Howard and Harden were still there as the core. They were there when the Rockets rallied from a 3-1 deficit to the LA Clippers in 2015 to make the Western Conference finals, where they lost to the Golden State Warriors. They were there when Kevin McHale was fired just 11 games into the following season.
And then, it was just the two of them. Houston sunk to a 41-41 record last season, barely making the playoffs, and quickly was dispatched again by the Warriors (this time in the first round), the team that the Rockets were supposed to be. And that’s why Howard is in Atlanta now, rooting for the Falcons.
Howard wanted the ball more last season, but the Rockets wanted Harden to have it and decide what to do with it. It led to chaos, with Howard admitting he was “disinterested” at times last season.
“I thought that after we went to the Western Conference finals that we was really going to take off,” Howard said. “But it didn’t happen. I would say part of it was the communication wasn’t there between myself and James. I think we both allowed outside sources and stuff like that to kind of manipulate our thoughts and things like that. It was a learning experience for me that I take to this team -- communicating, being open and up front with everybody. I thought me and James would have been very special together. He was one of the reasons I chose the city. But things don’t always end up the way we want them to. But I’m very happy for James and his success as an individual. His play has been amazing all year.”
Howard’s Hawks are nestled comfortably in the top eight in the east, despite the upheaval of a bad patch early in the season that led to Atlanta moving veteran guard Kyle Korver and giving serious consideration to dealing All-Star Paul Millsap before pulling him off the trade table late last month.
“You could see it on our faces when everything went down, how disappointed we were,” forward Kent Bazemore said. “I thought they were going to quit on us. But we put it together.”
The Hawks have been able to modify the flowing offense that they used the last two seasons under Mike Budenholzer; of course they’d put Al Horford in the post on occasion, but his strengths were as a roller and pick-and-popper. The Hawks can now take a more direct route into the paint. As in each of his previous 12 seasons, Howard is averaging a double-double -- 13.8 points and 13.0 rebounds per game (fourth in the league), and shooting 64.4 percent overall (third in the NBA).
Throwing it into Howard may slow the Hawks down a little bit, but it gives them the ability to play effectively at different speeds. The Hawks can still get a good look at the front of the rim if teams opt to get back in transition and set up defensively.
“He’s special, man,” Bazemore said of Howard. “In the summer when I heard he was signing, I got excited. Obviously I had some of my things on the table, some things to figure out. That was one of the reasons I came back (for four years and $70 million), to play with a dominant center and one of the best to play the game … he’s been there, he’s been to the Finals, he’s carried a team there. We believe in him and we look for him to get us over the hump.”
It made his homecoming a little more palatable. Howard and Harden are never going to be close, but at least neither had to slink into Toyota Center last week.
“Man, it was, I would say it was really tough getting off that plane and smelling that Houston air -- not that it stinks or anything, I want people to understand, it doesn’t smell,” Howard said. “But just breathing that Houston air, being in Houston again, this was really like my home. I enjoyed every moment of being in Houston. The fans were great; the Red Rowdies were amazing. The city was behind all of the things that we did here. The event that me and Craig Sager did here ended up being great, and I’ll always be thankful for all of the fans who ended up donating blood.
“This was a great place for me. I enjoyed the city; I enjoyed the community. Once you (are) somewhere for a while, you get accustomed to certain things and certain people. And that’s how it was here. Everybody was my little brother, my cousin, my sister.”
Everybody except, it seems, Harden.
“Just personalities,” Harden said when asked why it didn’t work with Howard. “I don’t know, honestly. It’s never, we never got into heated arguments, yelled at each other or cursed each other out or anything. That’s the crazy part. I guess, in life, two people just can’t get along. What I mean by that is on the court, it just don’t work. It don’t mesh. We tried, for several years. It was time to part ways, and that’s what it is. But no hard feelings. No hate. It’s part of life.”
Harden has two triple-doubles this season when he scored 50 or more. He leads the league in assists (11.4), running off of endless screens by either Clint Capela, Nene or Montrezl Harrell, or just enjoying the space that Ryan Anderson, Eric Gordon and Trevor Ariza create by spotting up. It is something that simply would not be possible if Howard were in the paint.
“You can do bad talking and badmouthing and all that negativity. I’m not, I don’t need that in my life. It’s, thank you for everything. I appreciate it. We had some really good years together. Good luck with everything. No biggie. But nothing further than that.”
“There’s moments where he just throws the ball between his legs, and I’m trailing for three or something,” Anderson said. “You’ve just got to be ready to shoot at all times. There’s moments where he goes into his mix, and he’ll sort of see you out of his peripheral. You’ve just got to be ready to shoot the ball, be in a stance, and be ready to make the next good play.”
After the disaster that was 2015-16, Harden changed his offseason routine and changed his body. D’Antoni changed his position, officially naming him point guard and giving him full reign of the offense.
“For me, it makes the player I am,” Harden said. “Coach D’Antoni gives me complete freedom: calling plays, controlling the game. I mean, I don’t have to overthink the game at all. Obviously, if he tells me that I’m not being aggressive enough, then I’m going to be aggressive. It’s probably one of the best feelings ever -- going on the court, doing some thing that you love, and you don’t have anybody controlling you. Just go out there and be me. It’s probably one of the best feelings I’ve had since I’ve been playing basketball.”
Bringing D’Antoni in made it clear how the Rockets were going to play going forward. Harden says that’s made it easier for him to change how he tries to lead.
“That allows me to do my job easier,” he said. “They can control everything. And then the personnel we’ve got, guys who listen, who work hard, who doesn’t need to talk back, and know who the leader is. They know what their role is. So you have the combination of those two things, and I just go out there and play free. And guys follow.”
You try not to read between the lines when Howard and Harden talk about themselves and each other. You really do.
“I think we have a shot in the east to be very successful,” Howard said. “We have all the tools. Like I said, it was two big components to winning, especially winning in this league. One is egos, and there’s injuries. And for the most part, we’ve been healthy all season. And there’s no ego. We just have to do that and add consistency to that, and we can be great … It can’t be about you; it has to be about the team. And that’s the biggest message that we talk about every day -- it’s all about the team, it’s all about winning. It doesn’t matter who gets the glory; if we win, we all win, and we all eat. That’s the message.”
Harden insists it wasn’t personal.
“You can do bad talking and badmouthing and all that negativity,” he said. “I’m not, I don’t need that in my life. It’s, thank you for everything. I appreciate it. We had some really good years together. Good luck with everything. No biggie. But nothing further than that.”
If Harden and Howard were trying to remain above it all, though, everyone wasn’t as sanguine.
Howard spent a few minutes pregame visiting the Rockets’ locker room, seeing both players and team and arena personnel he hadn’t seen since he left. After a few minutes, though, Rockets guard Patrick Beverley came out of the locker room.
“Get Dwight Howard out of our locker room,” he said forcefully, according to several witnesses. “I’m serious.”
Perhaps that explained this little exchange in the fourth quarter.
Many around the league thought it was a gamble -- both for Howard and the Hawks -- for him to return to his hometown, where he came of age playing AAU for the Atlanta Celtics with teammate (and future Hawks standout) Josh Smith in 2003.
“It is tough coming home,” Howard said. “But I think it’s all about timing. It was the right time for me to be home. As soon as I signed with the Hawks, the first thing I did was sit down with my family, and tell them the most important thing right now is the season. I want their support, and they have to make sure that they keep everybody off my back and take care of different things in the community so I can focus on basketball …
“For me, it’s been a great experience. I know that we’re winning, so that adds onto it. But even when we were losing, when we had that bad stretch, the city was still behind us. If we had lost one more game that month, they would have left us. It was do or die, definitely.”
Howard is trying to put his own stamp on his new team, in ways big and small. He runs most of the Hawks’ group chats, sending Instagram videos and inspirational sayings to his teammates’ phones. But he says he’s also learned that he has to be the bad cop on occasion.
“I’ve always been vocal, but there has been points in my career that instead of really communicating, I just sat back and watched,” he said. “And that didn’t get me nowhere and it didn’t get the situation nowhere, didn’t make it better. The best thing is to communicate. No matter how hard it is, no matter if you like it or not, you’ve got to communicate. You have to. If you don’t, you have to live with the results.”
He’s made a point of engaging Atlanta’s point guard, Dennis Schroeder, who was one of several teammates, including Millsap, Hardaway, Mike Muscala and Mike Scott, who went with him to Houston for the Super Bowl.
“After the last game, Miami, before that he wanted to talk to me,” Schroeder said. “He did it again today. He’s talking about stuff, how we can be better -- him first, and then me. It’s just great that you feel like people want to improve and try to get better, especially coming to me as the point guard, coming to me and telling me, what can I do better? I want you to do this.”
Physically, Howard says his back has been fine since he had surgery in 2011 at the end of his Orlando stint, and diet and exercise (though not yoga: Howard says he’s “too tall to do those different poses. It was pretty cool. It just wasn’t for me”) have kept him healthy. But the Hawks are still trying to hold him around his current 30-minute average so that he’ll be primed for the postseason.
“We got smashed on the glass the past two years,” Bazemore said. “If you can get rebounds, that ends the possession defensively. When he does that for us we can get the ball out and get running, we’re a very dangerous team. He’s just a presence -- getting him lobs, just throwing it down to him, getting in the bonus early, just the little things that really separate teams. I’m glad he’s here. It’s a different dynamic. When you’ve got that kind of rim protection around you it makes it easier for you to be aggressive.”
The memories of the Cleveland Cavaliers sweeping them in consecutive playoff series are still fresh.
“I mean, I don’t want to say it really in public about the Cavs, but this year, we gotta be pissed off,” Schroeder said. “This time, there’s no way that they’re going to beat us four-zero again. We’re going to come out stronger, and we’re going to go at them. We’re not going to say anything, but we’re going to change it this year.”
It’s just as important to Harden that Houston have a bounce-back season, to show that the Rockets were right to put the ball and the franchise in his hands.
“You fall down, you get down, people counting you out,” he said. “People badmouthing you. You’ve gotta just, okay, time to show them now. Let’s get back to where we need to be now. That was my entire mindset. And I think I’m getting there. I still have a long way to go. My main goal is to win that ‘chip. But the bounceback is key. I think all of us can feel the difference … I think we all need that sometimes in life -- just a little fuel to get us back up, get us going again. That’s all.”
Out of the Rockets’ locker room for good this time, and on his side of the street, Howard said much the same, the reunions over, the chance to again change the trajectory of his career in front of him.
“It is important,” Howard said. “We both want to win. I think that’s the competitive nature that we both have -- whatever team we’re both on, we want to make sure that it’s successful. Because at the end of the day, if the Rockets don’t win, it’s a team sport, but everybody’s looking at it as your team. And it’s like that in Atlanta. So as much as I’m all about team, I see that. And I want to make sure that I do everything that I can to help this team be successful.”
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