Everyone was doing their best not to make too much of a big deal out of Thursday’s matchup between Dwight Howard and the his supposed top landing spot, the New Jersey Nets. Avery Johnson’s focus was on adjusting his lineup to get better starts — Sundiata Gaines and Memo Okur moved into starting roles Thursday night.
Stan Van Gundy jokingly suggested the Thunder could solve their Russell Westbrook problem by trading Kevin Durant as far as possible from Oklahoma City — say Florida, for example.
Dwight Howard was even having some fun with the wild and rampant rumors, wearing a Washington Capitals’ hat after shootaround Thursday morning and joking he wanted to join Alexander Ovechkin on the forward line for the capital’s hockey team.
There is serious business to attend to though. And if we are going to read too much into every little thing that Dwight Howard and Deron Williams do, we have to be sure to mention the little dinner that Howard and Williams had in Orlando on Wednesday night.
“It’s just the world of reality TV and I think you guys are probably making out to be a bigger deal than we are,” Nets coach Avery Johnson told the media before Thursday’s game. “Players have friends, and it’s something I’ve been told they always do. That’s just the way it is.
“I’m disappointed Deron didn’t invite me out to dinner. I like to go out to dinner. A coach has got to eat also. I call better plays when my stomach is full. I’m sure coach Van Gundy likes to eat also. Maybe coach Stan and I should have had dinner, we’ve never had dinner before. I should have called him.”
Johnson said he commonly went out to dinner with friends from other teams before games (just not on gamedays… Johnson said he gets moody on gamedays). It is not that rare in the NBA.
The difference is of course, everyone is watching for what Howard and Williams will do. Every breath they take seems to be tinged with some clue into their future plans — which many people speculate include teaming up somewhere whether it is Brooklyn or Dallas or wherever.
Distractions are a way of life if you are a member of the Magic or the Nets right now. Williams and Howard are the two biggest free agents for the summer of 2012. And everyone now knows they are pretty close friends. Let the rumors run wild.
None of that mattered in the small picture of the Magic’s 94-78 win over the Nets at Amway Center on Thursday. Dwight Howard scored 16 points and grabbed 24 rebounds, setting a strong tone defensively as the Magic won easily. Williams struggled, scoring only 10 points on 2-for-12 shooting and adding seven assists but committing six turnovers.
If anyone thought Howard would “check out” with the trade request hanging over the season, Howard may have put that to rest with his 24 rebounds. Van Gundy noted after the game that the rebounding total, two off his career high, showed how engaged Howard was but also his passing out of the post and his willingness to set others up in the offense. Even though Howard had only three assists, he was very willing to find open shooters and not force his own shot if it was not there.
Howard is not putting up great scoring numbers, but his defense is every bit as good as it has ever been, as evidenced most emphatically on a block of Mehmet Okur sent deep into the stands on the third possession of the game.
While the media in Orlando and some in New Jersey wanted to make the game out to be more than it was, Jason Richardson said the players and the coaching staff treated it like any other game.
“It’s just another game,” Richardson said. “I think he did a great job of approaching it like just another game. And everybody on the team did the same thing. We didn’t really worry about what’s going on with him.
“It happens with everybody, not just Dwight. Every player is going to go through trades and trade requests and stuff like that. That’s just part of the business of basketball. But, as a team, we have to put that on the side and worry about what we’re focused on. Right now, everybody is here. And until something changes, we’re all going to be teammates.”
The Magic have repeated that mantra throughout the preseason as the distractions seemingly begin to increase. Dwight has been at the forefront of saying he is in Orlando and there was nothing else to talk about until something happened.
Until that trade comes. Johnson said it will be business as usual for the Nets too.
“It’s part of the territory,” Johnson said. “Right now for us, we hope we can get Brook Lopez back healthy. We hope we can play much better basketball than we did in game two, our first home game. For us, those little distractions will always be there. Probably until after this season.”