ORLANDO, Fla. — On a night when Orlando Magic fans showed up in droves to boo Dwight Howard for his acrimonious defection to Los Angeles last summer, the one-time Magic savior ended up driving them out of their own arena early in a convincing and redemptive 106-97 Lakers win at Amway Center.
In his first return to Orlando since the August trade that finally put an end to months of speculation, indecisiveness and frustration about his future, Howard scored a season-high 39 points, with 25 of them coming as he tied his own NBA record with 39 free-throw attempts. He also pulled down 16 rebounds, blocked three shots and looked as fluid on defense as he has all year, limiting budding Magic big man Nikola Vucevic to just six points after conceding 17 and 12 rebounds in Orlando’s December upset of the Lakers in Los Angeles.
In fact, it wouldn’t be a stretch at all to say that Tuesday’s game was Howard’s best all-around performance during his brief tenure with the Lakers — a promising sign of things to come for a Los Angeles team that has won 17 of its last 23 games as it makes a long-awaited playoff push. However, it was also an equally somber reminder for Magic fans of how good they used to have it as Orlando dropped to 18-47 on the season.
“This is fun,” Howard said after the game with his trademark wide smile, addressing a packed visitors locker room that most certainly did not feel like home. “I was looking forward to being back here, but thank God it’s over with.”
The game started as typically as you might expect in a situation like Howard’s, with fans eager to remind him just how much he is despised in a place where he was once beloved and untouchable.
A few particularly frustrated Magic fans launched their attack on Orlando’s former No. 1 draft pick before lineups were even announced, shouting out insults during the national anthem. Then the rest of the crowd joined in and booed Howard relentlessly when PA announcer Paul Porter nonchalantly called his name, tossing it aside like that of an absolute stranger during pregame introductions.
Once the game tipped off, fans gave Howard the LeBron treatment, inexorably jeering him every time he touched the ball. But Howard seemed unaffected, and as he settled into a groove, making three of his first four shots, he started giving it right back to his former supporters.
He gloated after a soaring dunk early in the first quarter, and after a monstrous block of a Tobias Harris shot that was reminiscent of his prime in Orlando, Howard playfully ribbed some fans sitting courtside near the Magic bench. Then as he headed to the LA bench following the game’s first timeout, Howard stopped to jaw with injured Magic forward Glen Davis.
“I have no ill will toward anybody on that team,” Howard clarified later. “I was just having fun and getting myself going.”
His self-motivation strategy worked to perfection, and once it became clear late in the second quarter that Howard was going to have no trouble outclassing his former team — a group that, on Tuesday, featured just one player who played with Howard in Orlando — Magic coach Jacque Vaughn changed his approach and employed the hack-a-Howard strategy, intentionally sending Howard to the line after a 2-of-9 start from the stripe.
But like most of Orlando’s attempts to stop Howard, the fouls backfired, as Howard made 23 of his final 30 attempts, including 16 of 20 on intentional fouls away from the ball. And, if anything, the time spent at the line seemed to calm the sub-50-percent shooter Howard on a night when he could have had every reason to be flustered.
“I didn’t have to be aggressive,” Howard said of his offensive showing. “All I had to do was run up the court…. I needed that to learn how to block a lot of things out while I was at the line, and I was able to do that. Despite the boos and all that stuff, I found a rhythm and found a way to block all that negativity out.”
With 7:15 left in the third quarter, Orlando, which trailed by four at the half, actually took a brief lead at 57-56, but from that point on, Howard hit 16 of 20 free throws as the lead ballooned to as many as 16 points down the stretch. Fans began trickling out of the arena early in the fourth quarter as LA began to grow its lead, but an official timeout with 2:25 left to play saw a mass exodus, and when Howard walked off the court he did so to cheers — a surreal scene on a surreal night for the league’s best center.
“I think psychologically it was big for him to come into this environment and play as well as he did,” said Lakers guard Kobe Bryant, who had 11 points, seven rebounds and eight assists as he took a backseat to Howard for the night. “I think it is a big boost for his confidence…. He played with a lot of energy and the right amount of energy. He wasn’t distracted or down about coming back, and his energy propelled us.”
Unfortunately for Magic fans, Howard’s breakthrough happened at their expense on a night they had hoped would be celebratory — or at the very least soothing — another reminder of how good they once had it when Howard was wearing blue and white and how bleak the future without their one-time star has the potential to be.