For a guy who has been the focus of season-long speculation of what team he might get traded to, Dwight Howard certainly looked comfortable in the Orlando Magic locker room before taking to the floor to engage the Toronto Raptors on Monday night.
First it was Howard partaking in a little, shall we say, bathroom humor -- warning visitors that it might be prudent to step away from the immediate vicinity of his locker until the air had cleared.
Later, Howard got a hold of the remote for the flat screen monitor that was airing Orlando’s previous game against the Raptors back on New Year’s Day.
And he took great delight in replaying over and over an embarrassing sequence that involved teammate Jason Richardson finding nothing but iron during an attempt at a slam dunk.
Following that, Howard went out and had a little fun at the expense of the short-handed Raptors (12-26), leading the Magic (25-14) to a 92-88 victory at the Air Canada Centre.
In what is becoming a regular storyline of late, it was a decent effort by the Raptors that just fell short at the end, their inexperience holding them back.
“The experience factor, you can’t rush it, you can’t teach it, you can’t give it to them,” Toronto coach Dwane Casey said. “You try to talk to them about it and show them. I wish I could jump in and do it for the guys.”
Howard would finish the game with 36 points and 13 rebounds, but it was his notoriously bad free throw shooting that almost cost his team. Howard hit just four of his 14 free throw attempts.
The big centre missed six straight from the line late in the fourth quarter -- the last two with 52.1 seconds left and Orlando clinging to a 87-83 lead.
Jerryd Bayless then showed him how it was done, draining two free throws that cut the Orlando lead to 87-85.
The dagger was then delivered by JJ Redick, who found himself open for a three-ball in the right corner and he delivered with just 9.7 seconds left to wrap it up.
Howard has been the focal point of a season-long soap opera amid unrelenting speculation where the six-time all-star and rebounder par-excellence, who demanded a trade earlier in the season, might end up.
New York, the Los Angeles Lakers, the New Jersey Nets.
You name it and Howard, who still has a year remaining on his contract but can trigger an opt-out after this season, has probably been rumored to be going there.
It is a tribute to Orlando coach Stan Van Gundy that he has managed to maintain a semblance of order on a pretty good Magic team that came into Monday’s contest having already won twice as many games this season as the Raptors.
“It’s not an easy thing but none of us have any control over it,” Van Gundy said before the game about dealing with all the uncertainty.
“It’s just a matter of staying focused on what we can control and sort of using the games and the practices, time we’re together on the court, as an escape from all of that crap,” Van Gundy continued. “And just being able to play basketball. We’ve done a decent job of it. I’m not going to say we’ve been perfect or been great in our focus all the time. But we’ve done a pretty good job.”
The Raptors knew they’d have their work cut out for them trying to contain Howard, the NBA’s leading rebounder.
That task got more onerous just before game time when Raptors coach Dwane Casey revealed that Amir Johnson -- who the night before against the Golden State Warriors established a career-high with 13 defensive rebounds -- hurt a knee in the game and was unavailable to play.
Ed Davis made the start at power forward in place of Johnson.
Casey was saying how important it was for the Raptors, in order to be successful against Orlando, to keep Howard from setting up shop deep in the paint beneath the basket.
On the game’s first offensive possession, Howard gets the ball in the paint, does a spin move to easily dispatch the lumbering Aaron Gray, and finishes with a nice finger roll at the rim.
Howard was on his way to a 10-point, seven-rebound opening frame in which the Magic opened up a 23-20 lead.
Toronto’s DeMar DeRozan scored 12 of his 14 first half points in the second quarter but Orlando still managed to increase their lead to 43-38 heading into the third. He finished the game with 18.