ORLANDO – The boos rained down on Dwight Howard, but he still kept his infectious smile. The physical play heightened in the post, but Howard surpassed it. The Magic fans hurled insults in his first return here since his offseason departure to the Lakers. Howard responded with dominant play.
Once the Lakers’ 106-97 victory Tuesday over the Orlando Magic at Amway Center became official, it’s clear Howard’s negative reception only fueled him.
Howard didn’t just show glimpses of his dominant self with a season-high 39 points on 7 of 13 shooting, 16 rebounds and two blocks. He provided the perfect rebuttal toward Orlando’s Hack-a-Dwight strategy by going 24 of 38 from the free throw line.
“I was happy I was able to face my fears at the free throw line and knock them down,” Howard said. “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 see a crowd and get up there and brick. It was good for me. I matured as a player and person.”
Howard also set plenty of records.
He surpassed the Lakers’ franchise records in free throws made (Kobe Bryant’s 23 fouls shots set in 2001 and 2006) and free throw attempts (Shaquille O’Neal’s 31 attempts in 1999). Howard surpassed his career high in free throws made (21 in 2012) and tied his career-high in attempts (39 in 2012). It also helped Howard made 10 of 12 fouls hots in the final quarter.
“For him to be able to make those here,” Bryant said, “he can make them anywhere.”
The Lakers (34-31) collected their fourth consecutive game mainly because of Howard’s contributions. His play helped the Lakers absorb a poor shooting night from Bryant, who posted 11 points on 4 of 14 shooting.
“Just come out here and kill them,” Bryant recalled advising Howard.
That sounded like news to Howard.
“I don’t remember him saying that,” Howard said. “But if he did, it’s cool. My whole thing was to have fun and embrace it.”
Howard showed plenty of signs he possessed that mentality beyond dominating on offense and defense.
Howard chirped with injured Magic forward Glen “Big Baby” Davis, who tweeted earlier Tuesday, “What would you do if you seen Dwight Howard walking the street?”
“I was just having fun,” Howard said with a smile. “No ill will toward anybody on that team.”
Magic fans expressed plenty of ill will toward him.
One fan sat behind the Lakers bench wearing a shirt that likened Howard to human feces. A few Magic fans yelled at Howard during the national anthem. As he sat on the bench to open the fourth quarter, Howard interacted with hecklers sitting behind the Lakers’ basket. Before the game, Howard made small talk with some of the Magic security guards.
“My love is with the fans,” Howard said. “I genuinely care for the people in this city. Everything I did was because I cared. It didn’t end right and didn’t end the way everybody wanted it to. But it didn’t change the fact that the city embraced me for eight years.”
That’s why Howard believed beforehand his return would be “emotional.” Adding to the hype, more than a few dozen reporters attended the Lakers’ morning shootaround. Metta World Peace even broke up Howard’s interview scrum because he’d have the audience to promote his Twitter account.
Howard spent most of time in Orlando before with his daughter and eating at Waffle House, his favorite local eatery. Meanwhile, the hyped backdrop didn’t faze him.
“All of this stuff was good for me,” Howard said. “I’m growing as a person and as a man. I’m happy with what’s going on.”
Follow L.A. Daily News beat writer Mark Medina on Twitter. E-mail him at email@example.com