The boos were ever present – when he came out of the tunnel, when he was introduced, when he missed free throws and during a scatter of other moments during the game. The nasty signs swayed back and forth, and the offensive t-shirts danced in the stands. In the midst of a much-anticipated/feared game against his former team, all Dwight Howard could do in this circus of a homecoming was respond the only way he knows how – he smiled.
He smiled and laughed during a pre-game huddle with a group of teammates who have supported him on this awkward visit. He joked with courtside fans and ball boys during deadballs. When the Magic came at him in the paint, he challenged them. When he was constantly fouled, he knocked down his free throws. Before he left the court, he waved at the arena of fans who stayed to either berate him or applaud him. Orlando could swim in their bitterness if they wanted. Howard came back to his old city to win a game and that’s what he and the Lakers did, 106-97.
Dwight Howard – Orlando wanted Howard to fail tonight. They wanted him to be affected by their hostility. Fortunately for the Lakers, he was only focused on one thing and that was having fun in the process of winning. In almost 39 minutes of playing time, Howard had 39 points on 7-13 from the field, 25-39 (!!!) free throws, 16 rebounds, three blocks, a steal and absolutely no turnovers – zero. He played a smart defensive game, committing just three fouls, and he was efficient from the field. But the story of the night were his free throws. He started just 2-9 from the charity stripe and had attempted 19 free throws by halftime, converting just nine. In the second half, Orlando continued to foul Howard, banking on him to miss more than he made, but he punished them right back, going 16-20! Hacking a Howard isn’t that effective when all it does is help him create a free throw rhythm and forces the opposing team to use up their fouls. Maurice Harkless fouled out of the game, and five Magic players had four fouls apiece. 39 ties the NBA record for most free throw attempts in a game, and Howard has surpassed Shaquille O’Neal for most attempts as a Laker.
Balance – Again, the Lakers helped each other, with six players scoring in double figures, including MWP who is slowly finding his shot again. He finished with 14 points and a pair of rebounds to go with a pair of steals. Steve Nash had 11 points, as did Kobe Bryant, who also handed out eight assists, grabbed seven rebounds and had two steals.
Bench Help – The reserves didn’t contribute much in the first two quarters (just six points), but in the second half, Steve Blake, Antawn Jamison and Jodie Meeks went to work. They finished the game with a combined 25 points, Jamison had eight rebounds and Blake tied Kobe Bryant for a game-high eight assists.
Defense – The Lakers’ defense still isn’t up to par against the most efficient offensive teams in the league, but they are making progress. Tonight, they held the Magic to just 29% shooting in the first quarter and 37% for the first half. For the game, Orlando shot just 39.8% from the field. The Magic also turned the ball over 14 times, which the Lakers converted into 17 points. Add to that, the fact that Orlando is known for their success on runouts, and tonight they were only able to collect four fast break points.
Turnovers – Just 10 turnovers for the Lakers , which only led to nine points for Orlando.
Hack-A-Howard – There were 64 free throw attempts in the game, 47 were attempted by the Lakers and 39 of those 47 were attempted by Howard. The downside is, of course, game stoppage. There is no flow in a game when every other possession is marred by free throw attempts. The upside for the Lakers, Orlando seemed to take no issue in using up their fouls.
Threeball – The Lakers went just 9-25 from behind the arc. Again, they may never shoot 16-32 again, but 25 is a lot of attempts from the perimeter when you’ve got a dominant center inside.
Earl Clark – Aside from hitting two three pointers in the third quarter to help the Lakers take back their lead, Clark hasn’t been doing much in the last few games. He had just six points, four rebounds, a steal and one block tonight. Surely he’s due for a big night some time soon.
In the end, the performance of Howard and his new team were all that mattered to him, and that attitude is exactly why the Lakers succeeded in winning this game like they did. Howard didn’t allow the hostile atmosphere to spook him. He allowed it to strengthen him. Tonight’s game against the Magic wasn’t just for Howard to test his tenacity. It was also for his teammates to witness his commitment – to the system and, most importantly, his commitment to the team.