LOS ANGELES — The wait is finally over — and it was definitely the hardest part.
Dwight Howard has played his first game with the Los Angeles Lakers, and while his team dropped to 0-6 in the preseason with a 99-92 loss to the Sacramento Kings Sunday night at Staples Center, Howard made it look easy with his new teammates.
In 33 minutes of play he put together a double-double, scoring 19 points and grabbing 12 rebounds, while also blocking four shots and moving as effortlessly as could be hoped for from a man coming off herniated disc surgery on his back just six months ago.
“I thought the back held up pretty good,” Howard said of his preseason debut. “I want to see how it feels (Monday). Hopefully it will feel even better.
“I had a lot of fun out there tonight, and I just feel thankful and blessed to be able to step on the court again.” Something that wasn’t a slam dunk if you know anything about back injuries and subsequent.
Often during training camp, the new Laker center reported how the doctors said they’ve never seen anyone come back as quickly and as well from the type of injury he sustained last season in Orlando. And if Howard does wake up pain-free Monday morning, the Lakers can begin Phase 2 of their preparation for a possible Finals berth in June.
“We knew it was just a matter of time before Dwight was out there,” Kobe Bryant said, “and it made things a lot easier for us, especially defensively, like we knew he would.
“We’ve been playing with him pretty much every day for just a quarter-and-a-half during practice. It was good to run up and down (with him) for thirty-plus (minutes).”
Bryant said he wanted to make sure Howard felt part of things right from the beginning.
“I just wanted to make sure he got his feet wet,” Bryant said. “There’s been lots of expectations placed upon him — and upon us — to live up to the hype.
“I didn’t want him to feel nervous.”
And it must have worked because Howard said he expected to be nervous in his first game as a Laker, but it never happened. “I was OK with that part,” he said. But he did admit that he was excited and emotional about his historic moment in Purple and Gold.
“I was excited and a little emotional because I haven’t been on the court for a while,” Howard said. “I actually shed a couple of tears tonight before the game.”
But for a while it was only the Kings who were crying as Howard’s return seemingly woke his teammates up from their exhibition-season funk. They moved the ball better, played tighter defense with better rotation, and just seemed excited to finally see their superstar center don his cape and take off. They ended the first half with an 11-point lead — 57-46 — and seemed to be on their way to their first win.
Then came the second half and Mike Brown’s squad looked like the listless group that had performed in the first five games this month, getting outscored by a 53-35 margin.
However, no matter if they have won by 30 or lost by 30, this was Dwight Howard’s night. The promise of at least being a legitimate threat to the defending champion Miami Heat has stirred up visions of parades down Figueroa and banner-raisings at Staples Center since the deal was completed on Aug. 10.
Point guard Steve Nash — also a grand acquisition this offseason by general manager Mitch Kupchak — is aboard the Howard bandwagon.
“He’s just a great player,” said Nash, a two-time Most Valuable Player who knows a lot about being a superstar. “He’s going to make me better and he’s going to make us all better. He changes the game on both ends of the floor, and getting him back in there is the beginning of, I think, a lot of good things for this team.”
Maybe even a win in a preseason game.
Notes: Howard did get posterized by Sacramento’s Thomas Robinson on a flying put-back dunk. “He must have thought he was Nate Robinson,” said Howard, recalling the 5-foot-9 former Slam Dunk contest winner . . . Kings center DeMarcus Cousins tied for the team lead with 16 points and added six rebounds. Aaron Brooks also tallied 16 for Sacramento off the bench. Kobe Bryant led all scorers with 21 points . . . Nash rolled an ankle and Metta World Peace dislocated a finger, but neither is expected to miss any significant time . . . The Lakers are the road team on Wednesday night at Staples Center vs. the Clippers.