By John Denton
March 12, 2013
``I think this was something that I needed and I think it was something the city needed too,’’ Howard said. ``It’s closure. We can all move on. We had eight great years. People are going to feel the way they feel. I totally understand that.’’
Tuesday’s game resembled the 1998 game where former Magic center Shaquille O’Neal returned to Orlando in a Lakers uniform. The difference, of course, is that Orlando won that emotion-filled game when it hung close all game and got a game-winning jump shot from Nick Anderson.
There would be no such heroics on Tuesday for the rebuilding Magic (18-47) because Howard ignored the boos, played well throughout and got plenty of help from his Lakers’ teammates.
``We competed and gave everything that we had, but unfortunately we came up short. But we appreciate the fans for coming out and supporting us,’’ said Magic point guard Jameer Nelson, who shared a private conversation with Howard at midcourt after the game. ``This was something we needed, especially our young guys going through this atmosphere.’’
Added Howard about his bond with Nelson: ``Jameer’s my brother. We came in (to the NBA) together and I have no bad feelings toward him.’’
Howard, who came into the game shooting 47.8 percent from the free throw line, set a new Lakers’ franchise record with his 39 free throw attempts, breaking the old record of 31 set by O’Neal in 1999. He made 25 of those free throws on Tuesday. The Magic’s Hack-A-Howard game plan backfired as the center made 16 of 20 free throws when fouled intentionally. Howard checked out of the game with 49 seconds left while clapping his hands and smiling broadly.
Howard made just nine of 21 free throws in December when the two teams met in Los Angeles. He also missed 10 of 18 free throws in the fourth quarter of that Magic victory in December. He made two of his first nine tries on Tuesday, but hit 23 of his last 30 tries to short-circuit the Magic’s foul plan.
``Early on, it was a strategy that worked for us because he only made two early,’’ Magic coach Jacque Vaughn said. ``We needed to use it throughout the course of the game. Strategy-wise, I needed to give our guys rest because I played our guys a lot of minutes. And we had to see if he could make them and use the percentages. And he stepped up there and made them.’’
Nelson, who spent the previous eight seasons playing with Howard in Orlando, led the Magic with 21 points and seven assists. Tobias Harris and Afflalo each scored 17 points.
``I got the ball in a couple of spots where I could make some plays,’’ Harris said. ``I thought I did a pretty good job of that and made some three in the first half. I thought I had a pretty good first half.’’
Howard led the Lakers onto the floor before the game and he was immediately serenaded with a chorus of boos from the crowd. Howard even played along with the taunts from the fans, yelling, ``Boo!!!’’ as his teammates laughed. And each time that Howard flung up half-court shots or dunked in the pregame warm-ups, fans filled the air with more boos.
One Magic fan sitting courtside got creative with his blue Howard jersey, using a piece of tape to change the name on the back to read: ``COWARD.’’
Lakers legend Kobe Bryant, who had 11 points on four of 14 shooting, had a pointed pregame pep talk for Howard: ``Just come out here and kill ‘em. Be focused and relaxed, do what you do and let the chips fall where they may.’’
There were nearly some fireworks in the game’s first six minutes when Howard repeatedly turned toward the Magic bench and exchanged fiery words with Orlando’s Glen ``Big Baby’’ Davis. The Magic power forward, who has been out since breaking a bone in his foot on Jan. 30, came off the bench during a timeout to continue yelling at Howard. Davis was irate last week when Howard referred to his former Magic teammates as ``a team full of people who nobody wanted.’’
``I wasn’t nervous tonight,’’ Howard said. ``I was looking forward to playing here. It was a hostile environment but I think it was something that was good for me. I needed it for my progress as a player and I think I needed that.’’
Orlando is expected to be off on Wednesday before returning to the practice court on Thursday before facing the Thunder on Friday in Oklahoma City. It is the start of a four-game, eight-day trip for Orlando.
The Magic were trying to sweep the season series from the Lakers for the first time since the NBA Finals season of 2008-09. Orlando whipped the Lakers 113-103 in Los Angeles in December when it poured in 40 fourth-quarter points for a come-from-behind victory.
The Amway Center crowd erupted in the third quarter when Harris blocked a Howard dunk from behind to start a Magic fastbreak. Afflalo ended that break with a short jumper that put the Magic up 57-56 and sent the Lakers into a timeout.
But the lead would be short-lived as the Lakers continued to pound the ball down low to Howard, who either converted or surprisingly made his free throws. A Magic offensive drought combined with 12 straight points gave the Lakers a 71-59 lead.
Orlando trailed 50-46 at the half, and it was lucky to be that close after shooting just 37 percent in the first two quarters. The Magic got little from Afflalo (1 of 6 in the first half) and Vucevic (0 of 5 in the first half). In the Magic’s defeat of the Lakers in December, Afflalo had 30 points and Vucevic had a double-double with several strong finishes around the rim.
Harris, who took the No. 12 in Orlando even though it was Howard’s number during his Magic days, scored 15 points and grabbed nine rebounds in the first half. He was ultra-aggressive, hitting three 3-pointers and getting up 12 shots in 21 first-half minutes.
Unlike much of the season, Howard was a big part of the Lakers’ offense early in the game and he went right at the Magic on the inside. He had a double-double by halftime with 19 points and 10 rebounds. And he got to the free throw line a whopping 19 times early on with just nine makes. The Magic used the Hack-A-Howard approach three times in the first half, and surprisingly Howard drilled five of six free throws.
The emotion of the night might have gotten to the Magic early in the game as they made just seven of their first 24 shots. While the Magic still managed to lead 23-22 after the first period, the poor shooting caught up to them in the second quarter when they fell behind by as much as 10 points. Orlando missed 26 of its first 35 shots, but still managed to stay within striking distance.
Another encouraging sign for the Magic was the gritty toughness that rookie forward Maurice Harkless showed in the first half. He made the Lakers pay for using Steve Nash to guard him, drawing three first-half fouls on the star point guard. Harkless had nine points, four rebounds and two steals early in the game.
At the end, Howard was the one smiling and – despite his actions over his final year with the Magic – professing his love for the Magic. The smile was nothing new for Magic fans to see, but the free throw stroke clearly was. After the game, Howard proclaimed himself better for having played well in the Amway Center’s hostile environment.
``My love for this city will never change,’’ he said. ``All the boos and stuff, I expected that. But that wasn’t going to stop the way I feel about this city.
``This was fun for me. I came back home,’’ said Howard, continuing to refer to Orlando as home. ``It’s the first time I’ve been here since April. But thank God it’s over with.’’
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