It's pretty shocking, I know, but Los Angeles Lakers fans at Staples Center didn't seem too happy to see Dwight Howard on Wednesday. I'm not positive, but I think it might have had something to do with the "Now This is Going to be Fun" era almost immediately turning into an "Are we having fun yet?" nightmare, an expected juggernaut disappointingly turning into a first-round-sweep victim, near-immediate coaching changes, early-onset free-agent intrigue, missed free throws, glass cases of emotion, health problems, mad beef, false re-starts, more than enough blame to go around, billboards and bye-byes. I mean, if I had to guess, I'd probably start there.
It wasn't Dwight's first matchup with the Lakers since heading to the Houston Rockets in free agency — if you'll recall, L.A. turned Dwight's smile upside down earlier this season on a closing-seconds triple by now-former Laker point guard Steve Blake — but it was his first trip back to Staples Center, and the Hollywood faithful voiced their displeasure with the Lakers' former big man early and often on Wednesday. They booed him on his first touch:
They celebrated when he got T'd up for taunting after leaving Chris Kaman with a baseline spin and throwing down a boisterous dunk:
They were even grade-school-cruel as he walked to the locker room:
Just one problem, though: Dwight was, y'know, quite good on Wednesday, and his teammates were, too:
Not only did Howard (20 points, 13 rebounds, three blocks, two steals and an assist in 28 1/2 minutes) remind the Lakers what they were missing — much as he did to the Orlando Magic while wearing purple-and-gold in his return to Central Florida last season — but he also got plenty of supporting evidence in showing why he decided to head to Houston, as All-Star running buddy James Harden (29 points, 11 assists, six assists, four steals) and old pal Chandler Parsons (18 points, five rebounds, two assists, two steals) helped lead an utter 134-108 dismantling of the shorthanded and scuffling Lakers. Howard's new buddies were even chill enough to join him in sarcastically cheering "Howard sucks" along with the disgruntled Staples Center denizens stalwart enough to stick around deep into the fourth quarter of a depressing hammering. Such a fun gang!
Evidently, the cheers didn't end when the final buzzer sounded:
Amazingly, the "Howard Sucks" chant has made it onto the team plane. The whole team is laughing. Great chemistry with this group right now.— Matt Bullard (@bull50) February 20, 2014
The Rockets' Instagram feed later shared the proof:
The jokes underscore just how smooth things are running in Houston right now. Kevin McHale's squad has won an NBA-best eight in a row, 11 of its last 13 and 16 of its 20 games since Jan. 1, and the Rockets are the only team in the league to boast a top-five offense (109 points scored per 100 possessions, No. 4) and a top-five defense (101 points allowed per-100, also fourth) since the calendar flipped to 2014, according to NBA.com's stat tool. They're getting strong play up and down the roster, and there seems to be a sense of chemistry and unity that just never materialized during Howard's lone lost year in L.A.
"I think the atmosphere got everybody hyped tonight," Howard said after the win, according to Yahoo Sports' Jeff Eisenberg. "My teammates, the first thing they said is they wanted to win this game for me."
Well, yeah. I'd want to keep a dude who bought me gifts like these happy, too. Especially if he's finally healthy enough — Howard's averaging right around 21 points, 12 rebounds and 3.3 combined blocks and steals per 36 minutes since New Year's Day — to be the kind of interior anchor that could help the Rockets strike fear in the hearts of the likes of the Oklahoma City Thunder and San Antonio Spurs come playoff time.
- - - - - - -