EL SEGUNDO — His reunion against his former team should’ve reminded Dwight Howard why he feels he’s in a better place.
He’s playing for a championship contender. Howard no longer has a derailed back that nearly threatened his career. He doesn’t have to live out the season-long soap opera that featured a trade demand, accusations he wanted his coach fired and a divided locker room.
But when it came time to face the Orlando Magic for the first time since wearing a Lakers uniform, Howard fell flat on his face.
The Magic unseated the Lakers with a 113-103 victory at Staples Center, giving at least a temporary reprieve to a team struggling to rebuild following Howard’s departure and further showing that the Lakers’ constructed super-team currently seem self-destructible. In the process, the Magic humiliated Howard in every way imaginable.
The Magic adopted the “Hack a Howard” strategy, the same one they saw happen for the past eight years where teams intentionally fouled Howard to expose his poor free throw-shooting. Though Howard posted 21 points, he only went nine of 21 from the charity stripe. The Magic reeled off 40 fourth-quarter points on routine layups and jumpers that Howard and his teammates should’ve stopped. Various Magic teammates took great delight in catching up before the game with their former personable big man. His name is Earl Clark. The Magic paid no attention to Howard, and he paid no attention to them as he walked off the court without even shaking their hands.
The meeting after a nasty divorce hardly looked pretty.
“It just bothered me we didn’t play the way we needed to play,” Howard said. “We have to do a better job. The effort has to be better from everybody. Everybody who steps on the floor has to bring the effort every night. No matter how many shots we miss or make, the effort has to be there.”
Howard’s mood clearly looked sour, a drastic change from the jovial spirit he exhibited prior to the game. He mimicked a television reporter’s voice. Howard boasted with reporters about his recent three-pointer that helped the Lakers tie a franchise record for most treys made in a game (17). Howard had an engaged debate on why centers, such as former Laker Andrew Bynum, should be able to take outside shots as they please.
Howard’s chattiness quickly evaporated afterwards, particularly when an Orlando television reporter with whom he had a hostile relationship after asking the Magic to trade him.
How emotional was the game?
“It wasn’t emotional,” Howard said.
Did he feel like a chapter was closed by playing Orlando?
“That chapter was closed when I got traded.”
What were his thoughts on being fouled intentionally?
“I don’t have any thoughts,” he said
Did you banter with Orlando guards Jameer Nelson and J.J. Redick?
What’s it like to be in Los Angeles?
“I love it.”
Eventually, a Lakers publicist stepped in toward the end, telling the reporter to “quit antagonizing him.”
Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni avoided doing that by refusing to take Howard out for the end of the game despite his 46.5 percent mark from the free-throw line.
“I could, but you want to do that? You take him out, that’s drawing a big line,” D’Antoni said. “He’ll get through this.”
D’Antoni may have reiterated that message to Howard afterwards. He approached Howard by his locker after the game. The two chatted a few minutes. Once it ended, Howard sported his trademark smile.
But one prominent Laker believes that’s a problem.
“The thing about his intensity is that when he’s upset, the team is and everybody’s mood changes. Everybody becomes serious,” Lakers guard Kobe Bryant said. “It’s not for him. He can play loose and do the thing he does. But that impacts the other guys. If you see him a little feisty and a little chippy, all the other guys become feisty.”
Howard surely sounded that way when relayed about Bryant’s sentiments.
“I play hard every night even if I have a big smile,” Howard said. “This is who I am. I’m not going to change.”
Well, except for one thing.
Howard’s poor free throw shooting largely contributed to the Lakers’ loss. The team’s 25 of 39 mark from the foul line marked the team’s fifth loss this season where the margin between made and missed free throws exceeded the point differential between winning and losing. Bryant predicted that if Howard makes his free throws, “the sky is the limit for him.”
“It’s fine,” Howard insisted. “I’m going to continue to practice. That’s all I can do, continue to practice and they’ll start falling.”
Until then, Howard would like more support.
“Everybody knows I’m going to help on defense,” he said. “Every time I went to help, nobody went back and hit my man. We have to work on it. We were a step slow tonight. We have to pick it up.”
That didn’t happen. Instead, the Lakers’ lack of identity and Howard’s consistency gave his former team a chance to exact revenge. In a true sense of irony, the Magic for one night didn’t have any drama. Howard still did.
“Obviously, I’m enjoying myself,” Howard said.
His mood, his worn expression and his clipped answers suggested otherwise. The “Dwightmare” still continues.
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