After eight years in Orlando and six months of recovery from back surgery, Dwight Howard returned to an NBA court Sunday night on a new coast and wearing a new gold uniform.
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The significance of the moment finally hit the normally playful big man during pregame introductions in front of fans who gave him a standing ovation before his first basket for the Los Angeles Lakers.
”I actually shed a couple of tears,” Howard said. ”During the starting lineups, one of my teammates caught me, so I tried to hide it, but I was just excited. It is really emotional, because I hadn’t been on the court in a while. I didn’t know what to expect, but it’s a very humbling experience.”
Howard had 19 points, 12 rebounds and four blocked shots in his Lakers debut, but Los Angeles still dropped to 0-6 in the preseason when DeMarcus Cousins rallied the Sacramento Kings to a 99-92 victory on Sunday night.
The loss was secondary to the Lakers, who finally unveiled their new franchise center after Howard sat out the first five preseason games while exercising caution with his recovery. The six-time All-Star played 33 minutes and made five of Los Angeles’ 22 turnovers against the Kings, fighting his game rust with energy from the opening tip.
The experience might have been overwhelming at first, but Howard quickly settled in for the Los Angeles starting five’s first playing time together. It wasn’t perfect, but it showed formidable promise for the long season ahead.
”We lost the game, but there’s a lot of bright spots out there, and we’re going to continue to get better,” Howard said. ”We’re going to get our timing down and start reading each other a little better, but right now we’re early in the process.”
Kobe Bryant scored 21 points as the Lakers’ starters played down the stretch of a tight game against the Kings, who finished the game with 10 unanswered points. After Cousins, who scored 16 points, put the Kings ahead with consecutive layups in the final moments, Bryant and Steve Nash missed late shots as Sacramento (4-1) hung on with a lineup mostly consisting of reserves against the Lakers’ starters.
”Our rhythm is already there,” Bryant said. ”It’s just about the little nuances, a few of our plays. … We’ve done it in practice, and I think it was exciting to show the fans what kind of potential we have. I think we’re a little ahead of the curve.”
Los Angeles’ starting five played together for four significant stretches and fairly brimmed with potential. With Howard and Bryant already playing well off each other, the Lakers finished the second quarter with a slick 18-4 run capped by Bryant’s buzzer-beating 22-footer on a pass from Pau Gasol.
Howard hadn’t played in a game since early April, when the Magic shut him down for the season with a herniated disc. Los Angeles finally ended his protracted departure from Orlando in August, trading All-Star center Andrew Bynum to Philadelphia in the four-team deal.
”I just never thought this would happen, me being in L.A.,” Howard said.
Not many superstars get hazed in the preseason, but the Lakers did it to Howard before warm-ups. They put Howard at the front of the line to run on the court, and then everybody stayed in the tunnel while Howard ran onto the court by himself, getting a huge ovation and a laugh.
Nash pulled the prank spontaneously when he saw Howard leading the lineup.
”I just grabbed Pau and held him,” the two-time MVP said with a grin.
Howard and Nash both got loud ovations from the packed Staples Center stands during introductions, although the biggest cheers were reserved for Kobe.
Howard immediately made an impact, getting an assist on Bryant’s 3-pointer on the Lakers’ first possession. Howard then threw down a delicate two-handed dunk on the Lakers’ second possession with an alley-oop pass from Gasol — a sight that might be awfully common this season.
Not everything went well: Kings rookie Thomas Robinson posterized Howard with a breathtaking, one-handed putback dunk while flying above the veteran.
”You could tell his timing was off a little bit at times,” Lakers coach Mike Brown said. ”A couple of times where he would have blocked a shot, he was maybe half a step late. Overall, he looked good.”
With all five starters on the floor for the final minutes, Los Angeles took the lead on Metta World Peace’s off-balance 3-pointers and led 92-89 before Cousins’ baskets. Nash then missed a runner in the lane with 21 seconds to play, and Jimmer Fredette and Thornton made two free throws apiece surrounding Bryant’s miss on an off-balance 3-pointer.
Aaron Brooks scored 16 points and Marcus Thornton had 15 for the Kings, who beat the Lakers 103-98 in Las Vegas on Friday night. The teams meet yet again in San Diego on Thursday.
”You’ve just got to make them work,” Sacramento’s Chuck Hayes said of playing against Howard and Gasol at the same time. ”They’re like the Avengers out there. They’re huge. You’ve got to keep fighting and make it hard for them every possession.”