Mar 12, 2013, 11:38 PM EST
“You can’t win without Kobe,” the Magic fans said.
“You’re right,” Howard responded.
It’s true for this season (and maybe another one or two), but for one night back in Orlando Howard was enough.
Howard had 39 points — and tied his own NBA record by being sent to the free throw line 39 times, but he hit 25 of them — leading the Lakers to a 106 -97 win.
What really matters for the Lakers is this win moves them half a game ahead of Utah again for the eighth and final playoff spot in the West. The Lakers need wins right now and Wednesday night, on the second night of a back-to-back in Atlanta, is going to be a tougher game than this. Los Angeles needed this one and got it.
But leading up to the game the focus was on Howard’s return to Orlando. And he was greeted with lusty boos from the crowd from the moment he walked on the court. They continued throughout the game when he touched the ball, but they died off as he kept hitting free throws.
Magic coach Jacque Vaughn went early and often to hack-a-Howard. It worked at first as Howard started 2-of-9 from the free throw line but then hit 23-of-30 the rest of the way — if a guy gets fouled enough he can get a rhythm at the line and Howard did. At the end he was just laughing about it as he hit 16-of-20 in the second half.
“I just wanted to come out there and have fun, that’s the biggest thing for me,” Howard said after the game in a televised interview. “Put a smile on my face, go out there… I missed a lot of free throws but then I made a lot of free throws.
“So I think all this was good for me as a person, as a man.”
Howard didn’t get a ton of help from Kobe Bryant on this night. Kobe opened the game with a straight away three pointer and didn’t hit another bucket the rest of the half. He finished the night just 4-of-14 shooting, but with eight assists and seven rebounds.
Five Lakers besides Howard were in double figures, led by Metta World Peace with 14.
The Magic made runs at the Lakers, particularly at the end of the first and second quarters to keep it close. In the Howard trade the Magic went young and some of their new young faces had solid games — Tobias Harris had 17 points, Maurice Harkless 12 and center Nikola Vucevic had 11 boards. You could see the potential.
Early in the third quarter the Magic took a small lead on a Harris block of Howard followed by a Harkless bucket in transition. The Orlando crowd roared.
But Howard and the Lakers put together another run, like the did all night. Los Angeles was simply the better team and the Magic couldn’t hold them off. They were going to need some help.
Like Howard missing free throws. But this was his night, and with a smile on his face he was knocking them down. He and the Lakers won and have moved on.
For Howard, in more ways than one.
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