Originally posted on Fox Sports Florida  |  Last updated 3/16/12
ORLANDO No one cared Friday night about all the waffling he did, or the anguish he caused, or the national cynicism he prompted with his decision the day before. When Dwight Howard bounced off the bench during pre-game introductions smiling from ear-to-ear, he was surrounded by his teammates, prompting his sight-to-behold, hip-hop Dougie shimmy. All was forgotten, all forgiven. A sell-out crowd showered him with thunderous approval, a thank-you Dwight for deciding to stay, for showing the small-market loyalty that the big cities still don't understand. At least for those few minutes, it was a love-fest at Amway Arena. Let the rest of the league snicker all it wants. The Magic dominated the undermanned New Jersey Nets, 86-70, and the actual game never reached half the the crescendo of the earlier introduction prompted by Howard. "That was great. It was great to see," Howard said afterward. It was the Nets more than anyone whom Howard deflated Thursday morning when he suddenly waived his option to become a free agent this summer, pulling the plug on the inevitable trade the Magic were about to make, and the one Howard previously had requested. He may have thought he was ready to leave for a bigger market and brighter lights, hoping to join the Nets and point guard Deron Williams as they move into Brooklyn next season, but the thought of divorcing the Magic suddenly didn't feel right. It may have been a horrible business decision -- foregoing a chance to sign a new 100 million guaranteed contract this summer but it was a decision he was more than comfortable with Friday. He danced with teammates before the game. He clowned with point guard Jameer Nelson afterward, palming Nelson's head with his hand while the point guard was doing a television interview. "First time that's ever happened," Nelson said. "But I'm happy for the big guy. It was a tough two months for everyone. It was a great ovation for Dwight. He deserves it. Whatever decision he made, some people were going to love it, and others would hate him for it. The only people that matter are the people here." There were hand-held signs around the Arena, thanking him. "Loyalty Wins," "You have to Believe," "Loyalty Means Something Here." The Magic may have to do the same dance with Howard next season while he waits to see if the team improves when he approaches free agency, but no one cared about that Friday night. They were thrilled at the loyalty he showed. Yet it was crushing to the Nets. "To say you're in the race to land a great, great player like Dwight Howard, it got everyone's hopes up," said Nets guard DeShawn Stevenson. "And then you find out he's not coming, it hurt everyone here. I'd be lying if I said otherwise. Everyone wanted Dwight, just like everyone wants a Kobe Bryant on their team." The Nets already were without their two best players Friday night. Williams missed his second consecutive game with a strained calf, and Brook Lopez remains sidelined with a sprained right ankle. They offered little resistance. They could be moving into Brooklyn next season with another awful team. If Howard isn't coming, it increases the chances that Williams might be leaving. The assumption around the league had grown so strong that the Nets would trade for Howard, or at least sign him this summer as a free agent, that the official NBA Store for a few hours was displaying a Dwight Howard Nets jersey for sale. It was taken down quickly. It took only one day after Howard's announcement for Williams, to say that he would NOT be waiving his ability to become a free agent this summer, setting himself up to go anywhere he pleases. "I'm not going to opt-in," Williams told the Daily News. "It's not monkey-see, monkey-do. Wherever I go is hopefully where I'm going to retire." The Magic, meanwhile, are starting to believe they could become a real factor at playoff time, despite the continued skepticism around the league. Howard shocked everyone with his decision this week, and he talks like he could stun them again. What helped make his decision to delay free agency was the consecutive victories over Chicago, Indiana and Miami, who were the best other teams in the Eastern Conference. Howard had just 18 points and six rebounds in a very average performance. The Magic, though, has six players in double figures, showing a balance that might be difficult to defend. They are 17-3 this season when at least five score 10 or more. "Dwight's decision could do a lot of things," said Magic forward Glen Davis, who played on a championship team in Boston. "This team has the potential to go a long way. Getting this out of the way should help everyone just focus on what we're doing now. You might be surprised again."
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