When Dwight Howard was a free agent this past season, he played a prank on his mom. He told her that he had just been offered a great contract, and when she asked which team offered it, he said the Utah Jazz.

“She started crying,” Howard said on CBS Sports Radio’s The Doug Gottlieb Show, laughing. “I said, ‘Mom, I’m sorry, I was just joking. I’m coming home to Atlanta.’ She was super happy. My family was super excited. This city has been great.”

It has many reasons to be. The Hawks (7-2) are the second-best team in the East behind Cleveland (8-1), and Howard – who signed a three-year, $70.5 million deal – is averaging 15.2 points, 12.4 rebounds, 1.9 blocks, 1.3 assists and 1.2 steals per game.

Indeed, Howard has had no trouble integrating himself into Mike Budenholzer’s system.

“Bud made it clear to everybody once we came in for our first day that there’s a lot of areas we needed to improve on as a team,” Howard said. “One was the defense as far as rebounding on the defensive end. Two was physicality. Three was just the intensity and the competitive spirit that we bring to the game. That’s something that he talked about from day one. He really put it on me to be the catalyst for that – to be the guy that’s going to rebound, block shots, defend and run the offense and then dominate the paint.”

The Hawks have won four straight games and handed the Cavs their only loss of the season. Atlanta beat Cleveland, 110-106, at Quicken Loans Arena on Nov. 8. Howard had seven points, 17 rebounds and three blocks in that game.

“I know in past years Cleveland has demolished the Hawks in the playoffs, and I personally was very upset about it,” Howard said. “Being from Atlanta, I didn’t want to see my team lose. Even though I played for another team, I didn’t want to ever see the Hawks go down because I’m from Atlanta and I have support from afar. But I just didn’t like the way that we were getting beat by Cleveland, and they beat us on the offensive boards, they beat us in the paint, they were more physical than us, and they were more competitive. Me being the leader of the team, it starts with me. I have to be competitive. I have to compete, be physical and get the job done inside every night.”

Howard, 30, certainly seems happy. That wasn’t always the case for the former No. 1 overall pick, as many people criticized his affable nature and perceived lack of competitiveness.

“You can’t listen to what people say,” Howard said. “I think that kind of messed with my head for a couple years, when people were saying, ‘He doesn’t take the game seriously. He’s got to stop smiling, and you got to compete.’ Back in Orlando, I smiled and I still competed every single night. I don’t think there’s nothing wrong with enjoying this game. This is my 13th season. It goes by fast. I remember coming into the league, and 12 years have already gone by. You got to have fun and enjoy it. When I don’t enjoy the game, when I’m not being myself and having fun, then I’m not productive. There’s a fine line, but I think the best thing to do is enjoy this game because you can never get these moments back. Now the games go by so fast, the years go by so fast, that you want to enjoy it while you can.”


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