Howard and Smith Share Lifelong Bond
They will wage battle again -- but against one another -- beginning Tuesday night when the Orlando Magic and Atlanta Hawks begin their best-of-seven, Eastern Conference semifinal playoff series.
Dwight Howard (Magic), Josh Smith (Hawks) and Randolph Morris (Hawks) were once inseparable teammates on that Atlanta-based, AAU travel team that was so dominant in its day. Yet that all-for-one, one-for-all mantra they preached together is long gone.
While the little-used Morris will watch from the sideline on the inactive list, Howard and Smith will be pushing, shoving, wrestling and likely determining whose team advances to the East final. They never before have faced each other in a playoff series.
Good friends since childhood, Howard and Smith have grown into the two best shot-blockers in the NBA playoffs, still wondering what it would be like to wear the same uniform again.
"We grew up together, since we were four, crib midgets then, always competing against one another at everything,'' Howard said after practice Monday. "We always wanted to see who was the tallest, who could eat their cereal the fastest, or go to sleep the quickest, silly stuff like that.''
Howard and Smith, who were born three days apart in December of 1985, went to preschool together. They played at the same recreation center at age 10. They went to different high schools, then re-united with the Celtics, carving the reputations that brought them directly into the NBA.
"In AAU, we'd stay at these big hotels, split up into teams and played hide-and-seek,'' Howard said. "If you got caught you got beat up.''
Howard and Smith became the No. 1 and No. 16 picks, respectively, in the 2004 NBA draft. Morris went to the University of Kentucky and didn't reach the NBA until he joined the New York Knicks as a free agent in 2007. He still is trying to carve his niche in the league, playing just 28 games this season for the Hawks.
"It was me, him (Morris) and Dwight on that same team,'' Smith recalled recently. "I just remember the fun we had. We were young, didn't care about anything. We just went out there and played.''
Today the stakes are considerably higher. Howard has grown into basketball's best center, leading the league in both blocked shots and rebounding for the second consecutive year.
Smith has matured into an outstanding power forward, yet he hasn't developed the consistency or power or dominance of Howard. He was third in the NBA this season in blocked shots (2.14 per game), trailing only Howard (2.78) and Andrew Bogut (2.54). In the playoffs, it's Howard and Smith 1-2.
"I'm not going to get into that (about who is better),'' Howard said. "This is business now.''
The Magic held a 3-1 regular season edge against the Hawks, who struggled to contain Howard. He averaged 21 points, 16.8 rebounds and 3.5 blocks. Smith countered with 13.8 points, 8.3 rebounds and 2.5 blocks this season against the Magic. More than anyone, Smith holds the key to Atlanta's chances of an upset.
For the Hawks to have a real chance against the Magic, Smith will have to match, or best, Howard's play.
"He is so darn athletic, he can jump from one side of the goal to the other,'' said Magic guard Vince Carter of Smith. "You have to be aware of him at all times. His ability to block shots, create havoc, it's going to test our patience.''
While Smith was big in the Hawks' first-round series against the Milwaukee Bucks, Howard was strangely not much of a factor in the Magic's sweep of the Bobcats. He struggled with foul trouble, which limited him to just 26.5 minutes per game. He also shot just 37.5 percent from the free throw line.
"This is going to be a totally different series for me,'' Howard promised Monday. "I'm not frustrated now. I'm looking forward to whatever [the Hawks] throw at me. I'm not worried.''
The Magic, the No. 2 seed in the East, haven't played since last Monday, while the Hawks just finished a grueling, seven-game series against the Bucks. The Hawks might be tired Tuesday, but the Magic also might be rusty from being away so long.
Both teams are loaded with scorers, which makes the defensive post play so important. Howard and Smith won't be guarding one another (Al Horford will guard Howard), but they surely will be gauged against one another.
"We just got history,'' Smith told Tania Ganguli of the Orlando Sentinel late in the regular season when speaking about Howard. "He's like one of my best friends. He's like a brother to me. He feels the same way.''