The entire city of Orlando circled this date on their calendar, preparing unwelcome home signs and chants meant to confound the city’s once favorite son. As Howard entered the arena to cascading boos and the sure implementation of the Hack-a-Dwight, or Hack-a-Howard for the sake of alliteration, the echo of teammate and negativity expert Kobe Bryant’s advice must have echoed in the mind of the Lakers’ center.
“Show them what they are missing.”
Dwight responded to tying an NBA record 39 free throw attempts by making 25 of them and pouring in a season-high 39 points en route to a 106-97 win. The victory pushed the Lakers back into sole possession of 8th place in the West by ½ a game.
If Lakers’ fans had any remaining buyer’s remorse for the acquisition of D12, or the impending payout that Howard will likely take from the organization to stay, his activity and his ever improving elasticity as he continues to recover from back surgery should let them comfortably put away that receipt. The 16 rebounds he attacked helped him maintain the league lead in the boards’ category. The 3 blocks, including one against Aaron Afflalo after the former UCLA guard created contact with Dwight before throwing up a fallaway that Howard immediately bounced off of the Amway Arena court and swatted into the 3rd row.
Then, of course, there were the made free throws.
Magic coach Jacque Vaughn, a Muir High School grad, employed the “foul the guy who shoots 48% from the line” game, and the greatest weakness of the center seemed under the spotlight. Yet, Dwight shook off the fuming crowd praying that he suffer another embarrassing 9-21 effort like their first meeting in LA on December 2nd and made his free throws at the right time. After a 9/19 first half, he sank 16/20 in the second as the Lakers slowly opened up a lead in the 3rd quarter that they would never relinquish.
MWP scored 14 and a brief respite from his 3-point shooting slump with a 2-4 effort. Nash and Kobe both pitched in 11 points, but Vino continued his courting of triple-doubles, adding 8 assists and 6 boards.
The Lakers now face their toughest opponent of the season, the second game of a back-to-back. They are a paltry 5-12 the night after, 6 of those 7 losses coming on the road. Although the Lakers post a 9-2 record after the All Star Break, they barely escaped versus the Hawks, tomorrow night’s opponent. Despite consecutive homecoming for Dwight, the Lakers will need to keep up the defensive pressure and continue to play team ball. A plus, the Hawks also played tonight, the latest victim to the volcanic Heat-streak of 19.