You're not going to believe this, but after he spent months trying to force his way out of Central Florida, worked behind the scenes to undermine his coach and general manager, picked up a one-year contract option because he wanted everyone to love him but continued to demand a trade because he really still wanted to leave, skipped out on his own local youth camp before finally making his break for Hollywood, then called his former teammates a bunch of nobodies, Dwight Howard wasn't the most popular guy at Amway Center on Tuesday night.
(Clearly, Orlando Magic fans weren't moved by Howard's recent apology.)
Soon enough, though, there was a more immediate reason for the Orlando faithful to be mad at the Los Angeles Lakers center — even if he's still not back to as healthy and dominant as he was in leading the Magic for eight seasons, he's still pretty damn good, and he was kind of kicking their guys' butts inside.
After a solid but not menacing start — six points on 3 for 4 shooting, three rebounds and a block in the first quarter, with the Lakers trailing the Magic by a point after 12 minutes — Howard started to impose his will on Tuesday night's proceedings, keeping the Magic mostly out of the paint, silencing emerging center Nikola Vucevic and holding Orlando to just two points in nearly five second-quarter minutes en route to a first-half double-double that helped push the Lakers to a four-point halftime lead. Part of the key — of all things — was finally finding a bit of a rhythm from the foul line.
It didn't start out so smooth — while Howard had been too big a bull for the likes of Vucevic and Kyle O'Quinn to handle on the glass, his trips to the charity stripe had been largely fruitless, as the seven-time All-Star missed seven of his first nine freebies, in keeping with his abysmal 47.8 percent season mark. As such, Magic coach Jacque Vaughn decided to go with the Hack-a-Dwight plan — perhaps kind of cynical with 4:10 remaining in the second quarter and his team down just seven, but you can understand the logic. Except some enterprising Lakers assistant must have figured out how to hypnotize Howard into thinking he was at practice, because Dwight hit seven of his next 10 free throws before halftime.
That didn't dissuade Vaughn, though — he returned to the tactic down seven with 90 seconds left in the third quarter and down 13 with 4 1/2 minutes left in the fourth. To his credit, Howard made the Magic pay, going 8 for 10 on those intentional second-half freebies, finishing with a game-high 39 points and tying an NBA record — his own, as it happens — with 39 free-throw attempts (making 25 of them) in a 106-97 win that sent Magic fans home unhappy and pushed the Lakers back ahead of the Utah Jazz by a half-game for the eighth seed in the Western Conference.
It was, to be sure, an emotional environment in which to play, as Howard had to endure justifiable rancor from the Amway Center crowd, but perhaps a liberating one as well, as Howard showed himself able to block out the distractions, table the desire for unfettered appreciation and just maul the opposition into submission.
For the attention paid to Howard's 13 for 16 performance on the intentional fouls, one of the most heartening signs for Lakers fans in the team's fourth straight win was the way Howard continues to draw the unintentional ones — hard dives to the rim after strong screens in the pick-and-roll game, determined work on the offensive glass, and continually improving quickness and athleticism on cuts around the basket. He's averaging just under 18 points and 15 rebounds per game since the All-Star break, which is quite tidy; more importantly, though, he's showing signs once again becoming the defensive stopper L.A. desperately needs him to be.
Orlando shot just 39.8 percent from the floor on Tuesday and 53.3 percent in the restricted area, both of which rank well below the Magic's season averages; for large portions of his 37-plus minutes, he deterred paint entry and altered successful penetrations, forcing Orlando to hunt and peck for scoring opportunities from the perimeter, where they were less than successful (16 for 50, or 32 percent, on midrange and 3-point attempts). While making the Magic's 25th-ranked offense look bad isn't exactly difficult, the performance extends Howard's recent defensive resurgence, which is arguably just as big a reason for L.A.'s post-All-Star run as Kobe Bryant's offensive explosion.
In 408 minutes spread over 11 games since the All-Star break, the Lakers have allowed 97.6 points per 100 possessions with Howard on the floor, according to NBA.com's stat tool; that's a full six points-per-100 stingier than L.A.'s season-long mark, which slots them in as the league's No. 18 defense. How massive an improvement is six points per 100 possessions? Over the course of a full season, that 97.6 number would rank the Lakers as the third-best defense in the league, behind only the Indiana Pacers and Memphis Grizzlies. And when he's been off the floor since the break, well, "falls off a cliff" doesn't come close to the appropriate phrase for the L.A. defense — they've allowed 125 points per 100 possessions sans Howard, which is sort of like if you multiplied the Charlotte Bobcats' defense by the Charlotte Bobcats' defense.
Since the All-Star break, Laker opponents are shooting 44.8 percent from the field with Howard on the floor and 52.1 percent when he's sitting. Before the All-Star break, 42.6 percent of opponents' shots came inside of 9 feet with Howard in the game, compared with 48 percent when he was out — a difference, to be sure, but not a massive one. Since the break? Just 37.6 percent of opponents' attempts when he's in the game have come inside of 9 feet, and the number swells to 52.5 percent of all tries when he sits. After two-thirds of a season in which teams basically treated the Lakers center like he was just another guy, they're starting to avoid attacking Dwight Howard in the paint again.
Not only is his presence reducing opponents' field-goal percentage and offensive efficiency, but he's also doing a much better job finishing possessions, grabbing nearly one-third of all available defensive rebounds when he's on the floor compared to 26.5 percent before the break. While smart, active teams that execute well in the pick-and-roll game can take advantage of Howard's still-not-there quickness, as the Oklahoma City Thunder (and Grantland's Zach Lowe) recently demonstrated, he's making more and more of an impact, and it's becoming harder and harder to score on the Lakers.
Combine that with the evidently improved attention to screen-setting, determined dives and hard rim-runs, and Howard looks like a very different man than he did at the start of the year ... which is one of the main reasons why L.A. looks like a very different team than it did as recently as one month ago, and why it's looking more like a playoff team than it has at any point this season.