ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) - First, the Orlando Magic earned one of their biggest victories of the season. Then Dwight Howard turned the tables on what has been the biggest player soap opera of this NBA regular season.
Minutes after the Magic came back for a thrilling 104-98 overtime victory over the Miami Heat on Tuesday night, Howard took back his preseason trade request and said he's told team officials that he wants to stay with the team for the remainder of the season.
``Well, I told those guys, I've been telling them for the past two or three weeks now that I want to stay and finish the season,' Howard said.
``I told them I feel we have a great opportunity to win and I told them that I want to be here and I want to bring a championship here. I told them they've got to give me that chance. They didn't trade me at the beginning of the season and I told them I'd go out and play as hard as I could every night to put our team in a position to win.'
Howard had 24 points and 25 rebounds, and Jameer Nelson scored 25 points, including 12 in the fourth quarter and overtime, but the story was what happened after the final buzzer.
Howard said in the preseason that he wanted to be traded, potentially ending a seven-year relationship for the only franchise the 26-year-old, three-time Defensive Player of the Year has known. He has the option of terminating his current contract and becoming a free agent in July.
Now those plans appear to be off for now, on a night when he could have conceivably played his final home game in a Magic jersey.
``We're third in the East and playing great basketball,' Howard said. ``I don't want to see that slip away. We have to take a chance and I think we have a great chance to surprise a lot of people by winning.'
There's still a chance the Magic could deal him before Thursday's deadline, of course, but that would appear unlikely. Now it would seem the onus would shift now to the Magic to bring in players to ensure he won't leave anyway in a few months.
Howard said his decision has been in the works for a while.
``We've been talking for a while,' he said. ``I told them that I want to finish this season out and give our team and our fans some hope for the future. I feel they have to roll their dice. It might be tough, but I feel like we have a great opportunity. They've got to roll it.'
Howard made sure it was a memorable night for the fan base that seemed ready to say goodbye to him.
It was the eighth 20-20 game of the season for Howard and 40th of his career. It helped the Magic overcome a 14-point, first-half deficit to win their third straight and fifth in six games.
Dwyane Wade scored 28 points and Chris Bosh 23 for the Heat, who had a three-game winning streak snapped. LeBron James added 19 points, 11 rebounds and eight assists.
The Heat visit Chicago on Wednesday in a matchup of the East's top teams. Orlando goes to San Antonio for its final game before the trade deadline.
Even Orlando coach Stan Van Gundy acknowledged before the game that all the Howard drama had to be on his players' minds. He shrugged off an ESPN.com report from earlier in the day that Howard had been told by team officials he could decide the fate of Van Gundy and general manager Otis Smith if he signed a contract extension.
``If anybody thinks I care about that, I really don't give a damn about being fired,' Van Gundy said. ``That doesn't concern me in the least. ... If they want to fire me to please somebody, fire me.'
He went as far as to say the most disappointing thing about the season-long Howard speculation is that his team's actual game performances have been secondary. After Tuesday's nail-nibbling win, Van Gundy wasn't in the mood to discuss anything more about what could happen the next two days.
``For tonight we're actually going to give a (expletive) about the game,' he said.
Howard scored the first basket of the extra frame and Orlando took a 100-96 lead on Nelson's running layup. Following an offensive foul on Mario Chalmers, Nelson scored again on a twisting layup in the lane to increase it to six with under a minute left.
Wade trimmed it back to four and Howard missed a pair of free throws on the Magic's next possession to give the Heat hope with 26 seconds to play.
Wade missed a 3-pointer from the top of the key and Howard was fouled again. He missed two more free throws, but James also came up empty on a 3-point try.
``They executed and made more plays in the overtime,' James said. ``We're not going to hang our heads over this one. We played hard.'
Heat coach Erik Spoelstra had the same assessment.
``Some second chances, some big, big plays there in the second half,' he said. ``In the third quarter we didn't play our best basketball (and) gave them life, gave them an opportunity to get back in the game, get some confidence and they took full advantage of that.'
Notes: The Magic played without starting G Jason Richardson (sprained left ankle for the second consecutive game. It was the ninth game he's missed this season. Reserves Von Wafer and Earl Clark also were unavailable. ...Heat F Mike Miller also missed Tuesday's game with a sprained left ankle.
The Associated Press News Service
The Associated Press
All Rights Reserved