ATLANTA (AP)—Growing up in Atlanta, Dwight Howard always wanted to play for the Hawks. Not anymore.
The No. 1 draft pick scored a career-high 24 points in his homecoming as the Orlando Magic beat the Hawks 117-99 Friday night.
“I’m happy where I’m at,” Howard said. “Atlanta is a great city. I’ll always come back here and play any time, but Orlando is my home.”
Steve Francis led Orlando, which has won three of four, with 29 points.
Howard, who grew up in Atlanta and graduated from a nearby small private school, had several hundred fans sitting in club level seats behind the Magic bench as he pulled down nine rebounds in a team-high 42 minutes. He was 8-for-11 from the floor and 8-for-12 on free throws to top his previous career-high of 15 points Nov. 9 at Dallas.
The experience of playing at Philips Arena was nothing like Howard imagined when he attended Hawks games as a fan during his senior year at Southwest Christian Academy.
“Watching the game from a fan’s point of view like last year is totally different when you’re on the court,” said Howard, 18. “It’s another feeling.”
Orlando, at 7-4, is one-half game behind division-leading Miami.
After Francis picked up his fourth foul in the third quarter, Magic coach Johnny Davis decided to rest his point guard and keep him fresh to drive the lane and draw fouls in the fourth. The strategy paid off as Francis, who had six assists, went 9-for-10 from the line in the second half.
“Steve put a lot of pressure on their defense,” Davis said. “We by no means took this team lightly. We tried to put them away. We just couldn’t.”
The Magic scored 44 points on foul shots. Atlanta, the NBA’s worst free throw-shooting team, went just 18-for-30.
“It’s troubling when you lose a game like that,” Hawks center Jason Collier said. “We have to concentrate on getting back in the paint and stopping it there.”
Howard scored his final basket after taking Grant Hill’s pass from the top of the key and dunking with 1:44 remaining. The 6-foot-11 Howard made a rookie mistake with 5:50 remaining as Francis, driving down the left side of the floor, bounced a long pass that Howard let ball bounce near his feet and out of bounds.
Davis didn’t care.
“He is neither awed nor intimidated by anyone he plays,” Davis said of Howard. “You think about his age and the fact he was in high school five months ago, now he’s playing in the deep water. He’s not in the shallow end of the pool. He’s in there with the big boys.”
Hill, who scored 18 points but shot just 4-for-12 from the floor, praised Howard’s methodical approach to his first NBA season.
“The good thing is it builds confidence, the bad thing is now we expect it every night,” Hill said. “Anything less than 20 at a time will be a letdown. No, he’s really worked hard. He’s really improved.”
Orlando never trailed after DeShawn Stevenson’s 19-footer at the end of the first quarter made it 30-28.
Walker had nine assists and seven turnovers. … Hedo Turkoglu and Jameer Nelson combined for 23 points on 9-for-15 shooting for the Magic. … Atlanta rookie guard Josh Childress, starting his third straight game, was 0-for-5 from the floor. … The Hawks placed Royal Ivey on the injured list and activated another rookie guard, Donta Smith, to take his place. Smith missed the first 11 games with a lower back strain.