AP Photo/John Raoux
It’s no secret that both fans and media tend to over-exaggerate, over-hype, and oversell events to create a more desirable vibe. Most recently, it was Dwight Howard’s return to Orlando as a member of the Los Angeles Lakers, and only days after some controversial comments toward his former teammates.
The media did not have to try too hard to sell this one. In fact, the only thing Tuesday’s game was missing was a national TV spotlight and a two-hour pregame special with Dwight on a chair in a studio publicly retracting his comments and sharing his love for the city of Orlando.
Instead we got a League Pass game, a Lakers broadcast, and a fairly uneventful evening that actually told us a lot about Dwight Howard and our own misconceptions about the way things like this ought to play out.
The lens in which you watched the game probably dictated how you felt after it was over. Fans commonly misconstrue situations like this one to think that this was the Orlando Magic against Dwight Howard. Similarly, they might think that this was Dwight Howard trying to punish the Orlando Magic.
What we really have is Dwight Howard against himself, Orlando against the hard pursuit of rebuilding, and both teams against the ever-present distraction that is the media. These guys just wanted to play basketball, just like they do every night, and eventually they did.
I read a tweet after the game ended about how the hack-a-Dwight campaign might have had a calming effect on Howard, allowing him to do more damage than he might have done if he was riled up. This is precisely the type of comment that gives credence to the idea that the Magic were gunning for Dwight Howard.
Yes, Dwight changes a game. We’ve known that all along. I even did a string of interviews with Bulls players last season where I asked them how much he impacts a game. We know he does.
But that does not mean that Jacque Vaughn sat his team down and developed a specific game plan to keep Dwight in a frenzy and not let him get calm. Vaughn and his staff had a game plan to foul Dwight to limit the damage that guys like Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash could do.
And yes, this might have calmed Dwight down, but it’s silly for us to dissect in that way, because again, it’s creating a rivalry that goes beyond the simple truth that two teams were squaring off against each other in a regular season game in mid-March.
I can’t sit here and make an argument that there was no emotion or that emotion did not play into the events that transpired at Amway Center on Tuesday night. Sure, each player is human, and humans react emotionally to events like these.
Dwight Howard wore his emotions and thoughts on his face more than any other player. He sheepishly rolled his eyes and did a little jig during pregame warmups with a whiff of sarcasm and discomfort that could be spotted a mile away. He jawed at fans, jawed at Glen Davis, reacted way beyond his normal capacity after big dunks, and kept that same clever smirk on his face every time he hit the free-throw line. Dwight was attempting to look very satisfied with himself and his current situation, but he was uncomfortable.
But that’s not really important. It’s natural for a guy to come to a place where he was so beloved, and then so hated, and feel a little out of sorts. You and I probably wouldn’t feel much different. And we can sit and point fingers, and do a full autopsy on Dwight’s game as it relates to fouls, jaw-jacking, and quick moments with former players. Or we can look at it for what it was, which was a game where the Lakers won and the Magic lost. Now everything goes back to normal.
What stands out to me more than anything in this game is that Dwight was able to show up and just play. Sure, there was some garbage in between the lines, and some moments of insecurity that fueled old rivalries and caused us all to tweet with outrage and intrigue. But that didn’t affect his game, his team’s result, or the overall outcome.
It’s this very truth that makes Dwight Howard what he is. Where Magic fans might have semi-expected to be able to somehow rattle Dwight, I viewed this as another game, and another opportunity for Dwight to come back to full strength and assert himself as the best center in the league. From my seat in Chattanooga, it sure seemed like he did that.
Dwight’s final stat-line? 39 points, 16 rebounds, three blocks, and he tied his own NBA record for free-throw attempts (39). Some might look at this and say, “The Magic plan really backfired here.” I look at this and say there’s probably not a plan that the Magic could have thrown at Dwight that would have worked. He’s an elite center who, when he applies himself and has a will to win and succeed, will do just that.
The biggest takeaway from this game for Mike D’Antoni should be how to get that kind of fire out of Dwight in situations where he’s not playing in front of his ex-wife Orlando.