Dwight Howard endured the worst reception of his NBA career on Tuesday night.
He then promptly turned in probably his best performance of this season.
Howard scored a season-high 39 points, had 16 rebounds and was sent to the free throw line 39 times by his former team as the Los Angeles Lakers beat the Orlando Magic, 106-97.
The victory came in Howard’s first return to Orlando since his drama-filled offseason trade to the Lakers. He endured a chorus of boos throughout, and tied his own NBA record for free throw attempts.
The majority of them came as the Magic tried to employ an intentional foul strategy. It backfired, though, as the All-Star center hit on 16 of 20 attempts in the second half. It silenced his detractors and more importantly, helped the Lakers secure their fourth straight victory and keep from slipping in their playoff chase.
His reception aside, Howard said he left the court still thankful for the support he got during his eight years in Orlando.
”I wasn’t nervous tonight. I was looking forward to playing here,” Howard said. ”It was a hostile environment, but I think that was something that was good for me. For my progress as a player, I think I needed that tonight.”
Jameer Nelson scored 21 points, but also had six of Orlando’s 14 turnovers. The Magic have lost three of their last four and haven’t won back-to-back games since December. They also missed on their first season sweep of the Lakers since 2008-09.
After a week of back-and-forth in the media following some perceived negative comments made about his former team during a television interview, Howard and Nelson spoke briefly just after the final buzzer and shook hands.
”Everybody’s always going to say certain things in order to start certain situations,” Howard said. ”But Jameer’s my brother. We came in together, and I have no bad feelings toward him.”
The embrace was a light moment in what was mostly a hostile atmosphere.
Homemade signs jeering Howard with sentiments that said everything from ”Coward” to ”Kobe’s Kid” were sprinkled throughout the Amway Center stands.
Boos rained down on the All-Star center almost every time he touched the basketball. They were followed by louder cheers when he missed a free throw.
The intensity was also ramped up at times, too.
Howard got tangled up in a verbal back-and-forth with the Magic bench at one point during the first half, and Kobe Bryant left briefly in the first quarter, bleeding from his right eye after a collision.
”I think professionally it was really big for him,” Bryant said of Howard’s night. ”Coming into this environment, playing as well as he did, it’s big for his confidence.”
The Lakers led 76-68 entering the final period and scored the first eight points of the quarter to push it out to a 16-point lead.
The Magic battled back and closed to 91-82 on a 3-pointer by E’Twaun Moore with 6 minutes to play in the game.
Howard made four straight free throws at one point and the Lakers got their lead back up to 102-88 on a 3-pointer by Jodie Meeks with 2:25 left.
The Magic kept up the strategy, but Howard – who was shooting 47.8 percent before the game – hit his final eight attempts to help close out the victory.
”With any player, if you get 39 cracks at it, it’s only natural for you to gain some type of rhythm,” Magic guard Arron Afflalo said. ”And he did a good job of making them down the stretch for them.”
Magic coach Jacque Vaughn defended the strategy, though.
”I think early on it was a strategy that worked for us,” he said. ”If we would have made six more 3s, I probably wouldn’t have done it, but strategy-wise I need to give our guys a rest.”
Howard embraced the negative environment from the outset and was the main reason the Lakers had a 50-46 halftime lead.
He had 19 points and 10 rebounds in the opening 24 minutes, and would have had more if not for his 9-for-19 effort at the line.
Howard started just 2 for 9 from the foul line, prompting the Magic to try fouling him intentionally three times late in the second quarter. He had found his touch by then, though, hitting five of six on those occasions.
With the exception of Tobias Harris’ 15-point first half, Orlando struggled offensively. The Magic had decent looks at the basket, but shot a paltry 37 percent (17 for 46) from the field.
They were also thin in the frontcourt for most of the half with center Nik Vucevic playing only 13 minutes because of two quick fouls. He went scoreless, with just two three rebounds.
At the end of the night, Howard said he was ready to turn the page.
”I think it was something I needed, to come back and I think it was something that the city needed, too,” he said. ”It’s closure. We can all move on. We had eight great years. People are going to feel the way they feel. I totally understand that.”
Notes: Los Angeles now leads its all-time series with Orlando, 32-15….Harris had a career-high 15 rebounds….Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni said that injured F Pau Gasol (torn plantar fascia, right foot) is starting to run again and ”feels pretty good.” He said he will continue to be monitored to make sure there aren’t setbacks, but that ”it’s close.”