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Despite frequent assertions that he no longer cares what people think, Dwight Howard has shown in the past a propensity to respond to heckling in not-so-positive ways. This doesn't make necessarily him a jerk or a clod; nobody likes it when people call them names and say mean stuff about them, and few of us react particularly well to insults. Still, Dwight's reaction to razzing during the fourth quarter of the Houston Rockets' exciting Wednesday matchup with the Dallas Mavericks wasn't exactly the best one possible.
Howard had a brilliant start to the game, making his first 11 shots from the field (he didn't miss until there was just 8:18 left in the game) and dominating on the interior to help Houston open up an 18-point lead with 3 1/2 minutes remaining in the third quarter. With Dallas charging back late in the fourth, though, Howard corralled a miss and was fouled before he could flip up a shot; after getting the ball back, he made a curious decision:
A frustrated Howard dribbled a couple of times, then gently tossed the ball into the crowd to whichever heckler had been getting on his case. It wasn't the worst thing in the world, a furious, violent or vulgar attack on a paying customer; it was just kind of dumb, because the referees instantly slapped him with a technical foul, giving the Mavs a chance to halve the potential impact of Howard's upcoming free throws by making one of their own, which Dirk did. (Credit where it's due: Howard did make both, shot 9 for 13 from the line in the game, went 4 for 6 in the final frame and has shot just under 65 percent from the stripe over the past week.)
The Mavericks went on to complete their comeback and earn a 123-120 win, and Howard's slip-up wasn't the cause of the downfall. You've got to credit the hellacious run sparked by the Mavs' continually top-drawer offense, which scored 48 points on 73.9 percent shooting over the final 15 1/2 minutes of play, and Rick Carlisle's switch to a pack-the-paint approach that kept Houston away from the rim (17 of the Rockets' final 24 shots came outside the restricted area) and cooled down the Rockets' hot shooting (just 8 for 24 from the floor in that stretch).
You have to praise the superior shot-making of Dirk Nowitzki (35 points on 12 for 20 shooting, including a huge 3 with four minutes to go and a big jumper-block combo that helped Dallas chop four points off the lead in 25 seconds under the two-minute mark) and the relentless attacking of Monta Ellis (a game-high 37 points on 18 shots, plus eight assists and a steady march to the free-throw line). You've got to note that a Rockets team that scorched the nets from deep through the first three quarters (10 for 21 from 3-point range) couldn't buy a long bomb late (2 for 10 in the final quarter). Howard's blithe flip and the T that followed amount to just one small ripple in the larger tidal wave that overtook the Rockets and sent Dallas surging to victory.
But it was still rash, and unnecessary, and it gave up a point that the Rockets didn't have to surrender at a time when they were desperately trying to keep their heads above water; it's the kind of thing you don't want from one of your supposed leaders at a critical juncture of the game. (It will also, as ProBasketballTalk's Kurt Helin notes, likely result in a fine, since the league office doesn't take too kindly to players having not-so-nice interactions with top-dollar-paying courtside fans.) And it will do nothing to dissuade viewers from the perception that Howard might not be the most mature big man we've ever seen &madsh; a perception lent some credence by Mavericks veteran Vince Carter, according to ESPN Dallas' Tim McMahon:
[...] during a timeout in the second quarter Wednesday, Carter interrupted Howard’s one-sided discussion with an official to loudly and repeatedly tell the Rockets center that he was “the biggest crybaby I know.” [...]
“All the time,” Carter said [after the game] of Howard’s whining to officials. “He always talks about how I’m a crybaby. I was like, ‘Yo, you’re the biggest crybaby I know.’ And then later, he’s like, ‘Yo, why’d you say that to me?’ But I know Dwight. It’s all good, but he is [a crybaby].
“I mean, he takes a lot of punishment, but I’m like, ‘Yo, c’mon Dwight, c’mon. You elbowed, you’re sitting in the paint the entire time. What are you whining about?’ He told me to stop crying. I was like, ‘What? Are you serious?’”
Grown men arguing over which one is the bigger baby seems like a pretty fruitless enterprise, not to mention a grievous and obvious insult to Orlando Magic power forward Glen Davis. (Especially considering the pot-kettle-black element of Carter, who came under fire at times for complaints while a member of the Toronto Raptors and New Jersey Nets, being the one calling Dwight out.) Still, though, it points toward something Howard and the Rockets will need to get under control.
As we saw last year when Kevin Garnett took up residence under the skin of Carmelo Anthony, the perception that a star player can be rattled — whether by opponents, officials or fans — tends to serve as a damning mark against the likelihood of that player and his team performing under the pressure of big games and high-leverage moments. Those are precisely the sorts of moments that Daryl Morey brought Howard to Houston to deliver; if and when they arrive, more focus (and less crowd work) will be needed.
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