But in an arena filled with signs caustically welcoming Howard home, Tuesday was Dwight’s night in the Amway Center. The Los Angeles Lakers center went out and scored a season-high 39 points, burying the Magic by making 25 of the Lakers’ 39 free-throw attempts. So much for hack-a-Dwight. He also had 16 rebounds and three blocks in 38 minutes as the Lakers beat the team Howard left this summer, 106-97. Howard followed Kobe Bryant’s pregame advice to “just come out here and kill them.”
Interestingly, and not at all coincidentally, he’s playing well just as the Lakers are heating up. They’ve won nine of their last 11 games and moved into the eighth spot for a playoff berth.
“The chemistry is starting to come along and we have to keep it going,” said Howard, who had 21 rebounds in the Lakers’ previous game against the Chicago Bulls. “What people don’t understand is that it takes a while to get it going and learn how to play together. We still have guys that are still hurt and trying to work their way back. We found ways to come together. I found a rhythm [and] was able to tune things out.”
Howard, finally, feels like he has recovered from back surgery that sidelined him last May. Over the Lakers’ last 11 games, he has averaged 17.6 points, 14.9 rebounds and 2.6 blocks.
“Dwight’s getting healthier,” Coach Mike D’Antoni noted, when asked about the Lakers’ rise. And then there’s that other guy… ”Kobe’s learning to play with the ball some.”
Yahoo’s Adrian Wojnarowski writes that “Slowly, surely, his back has provided him with more mobility, explosion. Most mornings, Howard goes for acupuncture on his back, diligently trying to bring it all the way back. Howard has streamlined his personal life, too. He’s leaned on a nutritionist, reshuffled his inner circle with the elimination of a long-time business manager. His circle is tighter, and some think that’s productively narrowed his world.”
This may not be one big happy family, but finally the Lakers are playing like a team. ”Everybody is accepting everybody,” D’Antoni said. “Just a lot of good things came together.”
And Howard was unflappable Tuesday night, taking what the Magic gave him. At one point Tuesday night, a fan yelled, “You can’t win without Kobe!” Howard, the Los Angeles Times reports, coolly responded from the bench, ”That’s true.”
He just kept hitting free throws, breaking Bryant’s franchise record of 23 (a figure he has hit twice).
“I was happy I was able to face my fears at the free-throw line and knock them down,” Howard said. “I thought that was the best thing for me, to come in here and really learn how to block a lot of stuff out and play and not allow it to affect me. That’s been big all season, to where I would hear the crowd and I’d get up there and ‘Brick.’”