After six months of back rehab and endless questioning about his return, Dwight Howard could finally smile.
He could finally play. He could finally experience what it’s like to play with a Hall-of-Fame supporting cast against an actual opponent. He could finally make his debut in what the Lakers hope marks the beginning of a long-term relationship that consists of multiple championships and another retired jersey in the Staples Center rafters.
Howard’s 19-point performance on eight-of-12 shooting, 12 rebounds and four blocks in 33 minutes wasn’t enough to stop the Lakers’ pre-season struggles. Their 99-92 SPACE loss Sunday to the Sacramento Kings before 18,997 at Staples Center worsened the Lakers’ preseason record to 0-6, their worst start since the team officially kept preseason statistics since 1982. They also committed 22 turnovers.
But Howard provided examples on why the organization felt giddy after acquiring him this offseason from the Orlando Magic in a blockbuster four-team, 12-player trade.
“I’m so thankful to be back on the court after coming off a serious surgery,” Howard said. “I’m going to make the best of it.”
Howard didn’t waste time. In his first two minutes on the floor, Howard set up Kobe Bryant for a three-pointer. Soon after, Howard scored off an alley-oop lob from Pau Gasol.
Howard’s mere presence suddenly inspired the Lakers to play team basketball (22 assists on 33 field goals). He opened up plenty of open looks for his entire supporting cast, including Bryant (21 points on six-of-12 shooting), Gasol (14 points on five-of-eight shooting) and World Peace (14 points on five-of-11 shooting). Howard suddenly closed the gaps the Lakers left on defense, holding Sacramento to a 40.7% clip.
“He looked normal to me in terms of how he was running and his stamina,” Bryant said of Howard. “He looked great.”
That’s why Lakers Coach Mike Brown said beforehand he wouldn’t hold any minute restrictions on Howard. Brown also said that, barring any setbacks, Howard will play in the Lakers’ last two preseason games Wednesday against the Clippers at Staples Center and Thursday against the Kings in San Diego. Since Oct 10, Howard has participated in full-court five-on-five contact drills and hasn’t reported any setbacks
But Brown had good reason not to heap lofty expectations on Howard, even if he’s considered the NBA’s best center. Howard hasn’t played in a game for over six months. He also admitted feeling nervous and “shedding a few tears” before the Lakers introduced him to the starting lineup. Before the game, he wore headphones as he sat by his locker room stall.
“I was a little emotional because I haven’t been on the court in a while,” Howard said. “I just thank God that I came back as fast as I did. I didn’t know what to expect. It was a very humbling experience.”
The Lakers made sure of it as they forced Howard to take the court first. Howard also flashed a wide smile as he high-fived all of his teammates before taking the court.
“When we went out, I grabbed Pau and held him back,” Nash said. “It was on the spot. We have that kind of spontaneity in this locker room.”
Not everything with Howard’s debut went perfectly.
Bryant missed two consecutive three-pointers on the last two possessions of game. The Lakers’ reserves also delivered little, getting outscored 57-18, before Brown put his starters in for the final 7:18. Even regular court-side celebrities Jack Nicholson and Denzel Washington weren’t in attendance.
As for Howard, there were a few blemishes too. He committed five turnovers. Howard went only three-of-eight from the free-throw line, bringing reminders of another Lakers’ center in Shaquille O’Neal. Kings forward Thomas Robinson dunked over Howard on one play that he predicted will end up on SportsCenter.
“I was a little rusty,” Howard said. “On the offensive end, I’m just trying to get my timing back. On the defensive end, I’m just trying to be there for my teammates. I think we’re going to be a good team this year.”
That could predicate on health, and the Lakers offered a few scares in that area.
World Peace suffered a a dislocated middle finger on his right hand, though he’s not expected to miss any games. Nash also clutched his right ankle on a play with 7:42 left in the third quarter. He soon stood up, though.
“It really hurt at first, but it’s just sore now,” Nash said. “I don’t think I’ll miss any games.”
Still, nothing soured Howard’s enthusiasm on his return. He still just seemed giddy over Lakers trainer Gary Vitti, whom Howard dubbed as “Father,” clearing him to play.
“I was just happy. Me and Father sat down and we had our confession session in the back,” Howard said with a smile. “I said, ‘Father, I’m looking pretty good. What do you think about tonight?’ He said, “Son, you’ll be great. Go out there and play.’”
Others encouraged Howard, too.
Lakers assistant coach Darvin Ham jokingly encouraged Howard to dunk as hard as he could. He followed suit, such as when he threw down Nash’s alley-oop lob that gave the Lakers a 90-89 lead with 2:15 remaining.
As Howard entered the players’ tunnel before the game, Laker fans greeted him with “Welcome to L.A.!” chants. The cheers lasted the entire game.
“I was just happy being on the court,” Howard said. “I never thought this would happen being here in L.A.”