Jacque Vaughn: Just another game
ORLANDO, Fla. -- Trying to disregard the massive media presence that descended on the Amway Center, the Orlando Magic went about preparing for Tuesday's game as though they were set to face Juwan Howard instead of Dwight Howard.
"I wouldn't do anything different," Magic coach Jacque Vaughn said after Orlando's morning workout in advance of its game against the Los Angeles Lakers. "No different shootaround. No different practice yesterday. No different pregame speech. The only thing that's important about today's game is that it's today's game."
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Everything around Vaughn suggested otherwise.
A group of about two dozen media members who attended the Magic's shootaround had swelled to more than 50 by the time Howard entered the arena for the first time as a visiting player after his first eight seasons in Orlando.
While the Magic barely seemed interested in discussing anything about their former franchise center, Howard admitted Tuesday that his departure from Orlando could have gone much better than it did. Howard spent his final months in Orlando requesting a trade but then seemed to reverse field when he decided not to opt out of his contract after the 2011-12 season. Howard again requested a trade after the Magic fired coach Stan Van Gundy and general manager Otis Smith and was dealt to the Lakers in July.
"All that stuff is over with now," Howard said after the Lakers' shootaround Tuesday. "Today is a new day. Whatever happened is in the past. I want to leave it behind me. I have nothing but love for the fans here. They treated me well. It didn't end right. It didn't end the way we all wanted. But I'm in a better place, and we have to move on."
Orlando is trying to do just that as it struggles through the early stages of a major rebuilding with a combination of young players and draft assets acquired in the trade for Howard. The Magic (18-46) are headed for their first losing season since 2006-07. They also will see their streak of six consecutive playoff appearances -- the longest in the Eastern Conference -- end at the conclusion of this season.
While the Magic, who have removed many of the images of Howard that had adorned the arena's walls, attempted to conduct business as usual, several Lakers players and coaches joked about the extra attention on Howard.
At one point during Howard's session with reporters, Lakers forward Metta World Peace forced his way through the crowd and took a seat alongside his teammate and said, "I need to get some of this camera time, man. I need to get to 1 million Twitter followers."
Despite their struggles, the Magic hope to take some consolation in a victory Tuesday that would give them a two-game sweep of the season series against the Lakers. Orlando defeated the Lakers 113-103 on Dec. 2 in Los Angeles.
Point guard Jameer Nelson, who came to Orlando with Howard in the 2004 draft, will be the only player available for the Magic who played with Howard. Once inseparable friends during Orlando's best seasons that culminated with a trip to the 2009 Finals, Howard and Nelson recently traded barbs in the media last week when the Lakers center said he led a team of players no one else wanted.
Several of Howard's former Magic teammates took exception to his comments and suggested the three-time league defensive player of the year needed to take more responsibility for the team's shortcomings in recent years. Nelson didn't back away from his criticism of Howard on Tuesday but also said he shouldn't be viewed as a villain.
"We had way more positive seasons and positive games than what has been put in the media over the last year or so," Nelson said. "Obviously, it's an added incentive because he's coming back for his first game and what was said in the media a week ago. It's a good story, I guess."
Nelson confirmed that his friendship with Howard is now strained and that they haven't talked this season. He also said the two didn't greet each other before the game in Los Angeles, but that it was because of time constraints. Howard said Tuesday that he "reached out" to Nelson, but that the two hadn't actually spoken to each other.
"He's not a bad guy," Nelson said of Howard. "I can't see why everybody is making him to be such a bad guy. We all make mistakes. ... I'm not looking for an apology. I'm trying to prepare myself and do the things I need to do to be successful tonight."
Vaughn insists his team is more focused on the game itself and not on any of the drama that surrounds Howard's return. Vaughn said the only other time he's been involved in a game that had a similar storyline was when he played with the Nets and Vince Carter made his first trip back to Toronto after his six seasons as the Raptors' franchise player.
When a TV reporter asked Vaughn on Tuesday whether he had any messages for Howard, he stared back in silence for about five seconds before he turned to ask whether there were any more questions.
"As a fan, you'll probably think there's probably a little more emotion behind it," Vaughn said of the atmosphere he expected inside the arena Tuesday night. "I've seen this before. Been there, been a part of it, and the best thing to do is play the game. That's what these guys get paid to do. Everything else is periphery. There's nothing to work through."