Dwight Howard Exacts Revenge Against Houston Rockets and Thursday NBA Takeaways

Adam FromalNational NBA Featured ColumnistFebruary 3, 2017

MIAMI, FL - FEBRUARY 1:  Dwight Howard #8 of the Atlanta Hawks is introduced before a game against the Miami Heat on February 1, 2017 at American Airlines Arena in Miami, Florida. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2017 NBAE (Photo by Issac Baldizon/NBAE via Getty Images)
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The Atlanta Hawks, riding the contributions of Malcolm Delaney, DeAndre' Bembry and a red-hot Tim Hardaway Jr., stormed back from a seemingly insurmountable fourth-quarter deficit against the Houston Rockets, stealing a 113-108 victory Thursday.

Though it won't be the top story, no play will get more run on highlight reels than Hardaway's thunderous slam through traffic with the clock ticking down:

This game wasn't just about the youngsters' passing their late-game test with aplomb and carrying the Hawks out of a 20-point hole. It was also Dwight Howard's return to the Toyota Center, his first outing in the Houston Rockets' house since his breakup with James Harden and Co. 

He didn't disappoint. 

The energy was a bit strange at the beginning of the proceedings. Howard and Harden didn't appear to possess any lingering animosity, but that was to be expected. As Fran Blinebury wrote for NBA.com about the now-defunct duo's time together, "Theirs was never a war of open hostility, but more like a junior high cafeteria where the students talk around each other."

However, the sparse crowd—blame Super Bowl traffic for the abundance of empty seats—brought out the boos when the Atlanta center was introduced. Then the referee threw up the ball at midcourt, and intensity pervaded the arena. 

Howard got off to a quick start, throwing down a plethora of first-quarter dunks as he tortured Houston with his physicality and enduring athleticism. His defensive energy was lacking, which allowed Clint Capela to pay him back with slams of his own, but Howard's net production remained positive:

By the end of the roller-coaster victory, Hardaway had produced the Hawks' most impressive line: a career-high 33 points, six rebounds and three assists on 12-of-18 shooting from the field. That included a number of clutch buckets to complete the comeback. But Howard wasn't far behind with his 24 points, 23 rebounds, three assists, one steal and two blocks on an 11-of-13 shooting performance. 

To put that in perspective, Howard had three 20-20 games during his three seasons in a Rockets uniform. He's now matched that during his first half-season in the Peach State, and this was already his fifth 20-rebound game of the campaign. The only other players reaching that tally in 2016-17? DeAndre Jordan and Andre Drummond.

Howard was never fully happy in Houston. He played like a muted (and maybe not quite 100 percent) version of himself, often refusing to roll after setting picks and demanding ill-advised post touches. 

But he's accepted his role in Atlanta, and he proved that against his old teammates with another dominant performance.

He picked his spots wisely on offense, and he settled in defensively to help spark the comeback. Just look at his positioning and hands against Harden on this key possession, even if he did use his weaker limb to commit an uncalled foul after poking the ball loose from the bearded guard:

This isn't anything new in 2016-17. His value has gone beyond his per-game averages—13.6 points and 12.8 rebounds heading into Thursday night. 

According to NBA Math's total points added, he's been one of Atlanta's only two-way contributors: 

Sure, there was a bit of added motivation against the Rockets. He even went into the contest anticipating boos.

"There was never any love lost for this city," Howard explained to ESPN.com's Calvin Watkins the morning of the return. "It's just the business of basketball. I'm in a great place; this team is in a great place, but if I do get a couple of boos, I will respect it and I understand it and you got to move forward."

But don't chalk up Howard's monstrous numbers to extra intensity. He'd be the first to point you in a different direction. 

"I didn't really think about it like that," the big man explained to the Associated Press after the win (via ESPN.com). "It wasn't like, 'Aww, we've got to beat Houston because it's my first time back.' I just knew we needed the win."

Take this with a grain of salt, since it's hard to imagine the Hawks, sitting comfortably in the Eastern Conference playoff picture, "needed the win" on the road against a legitimate contender. 

Revenge may still have been a factor. Either way, this was just an exaggerated version of what he's been doing since going to his hometown squad. His performance was aided, in part, by his 37 minutes—the most he's logged in a regulation contest with Atlanta. 

The 31-year-old center isn't going anywhere when he has fewer sources of motivation to do so. Everything he's done in 2016-17 confirms as much, even if this was his shiniest, most notable performance. 

          

Hello, Wizards Backcourt

The Washington Wizards aren't strangers to claiming superiority over the rest of the NBA's backcourt combinations. John Wall has made the boast multiple times, most recently after a Jan. 24 victory over the Boston Celtics (h/t SLAM Online's Marcel Mutoni):

Four games later, they worked to back up the claim with a 116-108 win at the Los Angeles Lakers' expense. 

Wall was phenomenal, as he's so often been in 2016-17. The floor general registered 33 points, three rebounds, 11 assists and three steals while playing pesky defense against Los Angeles' young guards. His vision was on full display, and his three-point stroke helped space the court for his athletic drives into the opposition's teeth. 

Bradley Beal, meanwhile, continued his recent surge. 

The January doldrums had begun depressing his shooting percentages. But as Hardwood Paroxysm's Matt Moore pointed out, he's responded with vigor lately: 

After going for 23 points and four assists against the Lakers, Beal is now averaging 24.8 points and 3.8 assists during his last five outings while knocking down 61.0 percent of his field-goal attempts and 42.4 percent of his deep looks. He may as well have fire shooting out of his ears, since all he can do is throw flames at the opposition. 

Plenty of other backcourts can make legitimate claims they're top dogs. Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson have a worthy argument. Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum can't be slowed offensively. Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan are both All-Stars in the Eastern Conference. 

But when Wall and Beal are feeling it, their case is awfully compelling. 

      

Balance Key for San Antonio Spurs

SAN ANTONIO, TX - FEBRUARY 2:  Kawhi Leonard #2 of the San Antonio Spurs drives to the basket against the Philadelphia 76ers during the game on February 2, 2017 at the AT&T Center in San Antonio, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees
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The San Antonio Spurs can beat you in every way imaginable. It's how they've sprinted out to a 38-11 record in 2016-17, which leaves them trailing only the Warriors. 

The Philadelphia 76ers served as their latest victims, falling 102-86 despite entering the second half with a five-point advantage. And as they search for what went wrong during those final 24 minutes, they won't find just one answer. 

No individual stood out for head coach Gregg Popovich's troops Thursday night. It wasn't an MVP showcase for Kawhi Leonard, and the other big names failed to submit notable lines.

Instead, the Spurs overwhelmed a Philadelphia outfit operating without Joel Embiid and Robert Covington by using contributions from just about everyone on the roster. 

Rookie forward Davis Bertans was a first-half standout, but his shot disappeared after he emerged from the locker room for the third period. Though he finished with 12 points, six rebounds, three assists and two steals, he was only one of seven Spurs in double figures. Leonard paced the team with a 19-spot, and he was joined by Dewayne Dedmon (13 points), Danny Green (12), David Lee (12), Patty Mills (12) and Jonathon Simmons (11).

Balance reigned supreme, and that's just the latest way the Spurs can demoralize an overmatched opponent. 

 

R.I.P. Warriors-Clippers Rivalry

LOS ANGELES, CA - FEBRUARY 2: Kevin Durant #35 of the Golden State Warriors handles the ball against the LA Clippers on February 2, 2017 at STAPLES Center in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloadin
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Once upon a time, no better NBA rivalry existed. The Golden State Warriors and Los Angeles Clippers seemed to hate each other. 

"We always want to beat them, and they always want to beat us," Draymond Green said in November 2015, per Rusty Simmons of the San Francisco Chronicle. "There's definitely more respect than people think, but it's also no secret that we don't like them and they don't like us."

The list of memorable moments in the rivalry grew lengthy (Bleacher Report's Dan Favale recapped them nicely before the 2016 playoffs), but the feelings have dwindled over the years, to the point that Favale didn't even include the two teams in his recent list of the Association's biggest feuds

It makes sense. Competitiveness is a prerequisite for a rivalry, and the Clippers haven't been able to keep pace with Golden State ever since winning Game 7 in the opening round of the 2014 playoffs. Thursday night was the teams' 11th meeting since that postseason ouster, and it was the Warriors' 10th victory:

Golden State vs. Los Angeles, Recent Results
DateLocationResult
11/5/2014Oracle ArenaGolden State 121, Los Angeles 104
12/25/2014Staples CenterLos Angeles 100, Golden State 86
3/8/2015Oracle ArenaGolden State 106, Los Angeles 98
3/31/2015Staples CenterGolden State 110, Los Angeles 106
11/4/2015Oracle ArenaGolden State 112, Los Angeles 108
11/19/2015Staples CenterGolden State 124, Los Angeles 117
2/20/2016Staples CenterGolden State 115, Los Angeles 112
3/23/2016Oracle ArenaGolden State 114, Los Angeles 98
12/7/2016Staples CenterGolden State 115, Los Angeles 98
1/28/2017Oracle ArenaGolden State 144, Los Angeles 98
2/2/2017Staples CenterGolden State 133, Los Angeles 120

Sure, the Clippers were missing Chris Paul during their 133-120 defeat. Then again, the Dubs were playing without Green and Zaza Pachulia. 

Blake Griffin put on an individual show with 31 points and eight rebounds, but he was no match for the heroics of the Warriors' active stars. Curry went for 29 points and 11 assists. Kevin Durant had 26 points, eight rebounds, 10 assists and zero turnovers. Thompson recorded 21 points and seven boards. 

Golden State's eventual win felt inevitable, and as ESPN.com's Ethan Sherwood Strauss noted, tempers never flared without the Clippers' ringleader spurring on his teammates:

There's still time for the rivalry to redevelop. But for now, we can lay it to rest. 

             

Thursday's Final Scores

  • Washington Wizards 116, Los Angeles Lakers 108
  • Atlanta Hawks 113, Houston Rockets 108
  • San Antonio Spurs 102, Philadelphia 76ers 86
  • Golden State Warriors 133, Los Angeles Clippers 120

           

Adam Fromal covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @fromal09.

Unless otherwise indicated, all stats from Basketball-Reference.comNBA.com or NBA Math and accurate heading into games on Thursday, February 2.