ORLANDO – Perhaps it’s time to retire the talk that the Orlando Magic need to retire Dwight Howard’s old jersey number.
While the booing and fouling of Howard in his return to town as a member of the Los Angeles Lakers was predictable, here’s something that wasn’t: Tobias Harris, making his third start since being acquired three weeks ago in the trade which sent J.J. Redick to Milwaukee, blocking Howard’s shot to trigger a fast break resulting in a basket that gave the Magic a 57-56 in the third quarter.
Harris and the Magic began to run out of gas shortly thereafter, and the Lakers pulled away for a 106-97 victory. But the new No. 12 in blue and white was at the forefront of an effort that helped close the book for good on Howard’s eight-year stay.
“We fought with the Lakers throughout that whole game,” said Harris, who finished with 17 points and a career-high 15 rebounds. “We can play with the best of them. And that’s important, especially for being a young team.”
Howard got an earful from the crowd during pregame introductions and whenever he touched the ball, although the noise level subsided noticeably as the game went on. And several of his dunks and blocked shots were greeted with a fair amount of cheers, particularly by fans in Lakers garb.
“All the boos and stuff, I expected that,” said Howard, who tied his own NBA single-game record for free-throw attempts with 39 and ended up with 39 points and 16 rebounds. “Like I said, nothing is ever going to stop the way I feel about this city.”
Aside from Jameer Nelson, no one who saw action for the Magic was teammates with Howard a year ago. Although the Magic won at Los Angeles in December when they still had Redick and a healthy Glen Davis, this game appeared headed down a different path after the Lakers took an 11-point lead in the second quarter and Howard no longer looked so bewildered at the line.
But the Magic trimmed their deficit to 50-46 at halftime and briefly went ahead on Arron Afflalo’s short jumper following the last of Harris’ three blocks.
“It was like a playoff atmosphere out there,” Harris said. “I’ve never played in a playoff game, but I’ve seen them on TV. I would imagine that would be the closest thing to it.”
“For the most part, our guys were really competitive tonight,” coach Jacque Vaughn said. “I thought their approach was really good. There might have been a few times where we lost our focus, but that happens throughout the course of the game.”
Harris had more playing time than anyone on the Magic during the first half and played the entire third quarter. Vaughn gave him a rest to start the final period, but the Lakers went ahead by as many as 16 before Harris finally returned with 4:51 to go.
“I’d have loved to have been out there,” he said. “But that lineup that was out there was flowing pretty well. So I understand the coach’s decision to keep me on the bench.”
While Harris scored 15 of his 17 points in the first half, Nelson had all 21 of his points over the last three quarter. Nikola Vucevic, who finished with 17 points and 12 rebounds in the first meeting with the Lakers, didn’t score until more than four minutes into the third quarter.
Asked whether Howard looked like a different player from when he faced him three months earlier, Vucevic replied, “Yes. Definitely, he looked a lot better. He was jumping better, moving better and all that. He looked like the Dwight who was dominating the league the past few seasons.”
Nelson had a lengthy conversation with Howard that appeared to be cordial in nature after the game ended but refused to divulge any of the details. Nelson was among Howard’s former teammates who had taken exception to comments he made last week in a television interview.
“I’m not going to give you guys anything else to write about,” he said. “You guys can speculate and come up with your stories. But I wish him the best, no matter where he is or what he’s doing. I have no bad blood.”
For Howard, the feeling was mutual.
“Jameer is my brother,” Howard said. “We came in together. I have no bad feelings toward him.”