ORLANDO -- Feeding off a hostile crowd that came to boo him, Dwight Howard delivered a dominating performance that might well become the defining moment in this late-season surge of the Los Angeles Lakers.
Howard made a triumphant first return to Orlando on Tuesday night, leading his Lakers to a relatively easy, 106-97 victory over the Magic.
Howard had a season-high 39 points, 16 rebounds and three blocked shots, providing the catalyst the Lakers have been waiting for, showing the mental and physical toughness they will need from him in the playoffs.
Howard made 25 of 39 free throws, punishing the Magic for intentionally fouling him throughout the game, despite a crowd that booed his every move.
Howard tied an NBA record for most free throws attempted in a game, a mark he set last season when he played for the Magic against Golden State.
Howard made his last eight free throws in the final four minutes, squelching any chance of a late-game comeback by the Magic. He also made 16 of the 20 free throws after being intentionally fouled.
"I missed a lot of free throws, but I made a lot," Howard said. "We are playing a lot better now, and I need to help this team win. I play basketball in LA now, and we are going to try to win a championship. Whatever happened before is behind me, but we are coming together now. The chemistry here is starting to come along, and we have to keep it going."
Howard played the previous eight seasons for the Magic -- and was once idolized in Orlando -- but after forcing a trade this summer, then making critical remarks about his former teammates, he came back as a subject of scorn Tuesday. Yet he embraced the night and hostility around him, making a point to his teammates.
"I had a smile on my face. I put in a lot of time here. This was good for me," Howard said. "We've got to keep this going. There are ways to make us better. That's all this was about."
He did it with everyone else in a supporting role, including Kobe Bryant, who had 11 points, seven rebounds and eight assists. Meta World Peace had 14 points. Steve Nash and reserve Jodie Meeks each had 11.
The victory moved the Lakers (34-31) into the No. 8 spot in the Western Conference playoff picture, making them more confident that they can climb to No. 7 or No. 6 before the regular season ends. The Lakers finish this road trip with games in Atlanta and Indiana.
"I think Dwight is just getting healthier," said Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni. "It's what everyone expected. I think he can go up to another level out there. For him, there were a lot of emotions tonight. Dwight was an imposing force out there. He's been showing it for awhile now."
"I think we have found our rhythm and our roles," Bryant said. "Everything is kind of fitting well together right now, and we're playing exceptional basketball. I think psychologically, this was big for him (Howard). To come into this environment and play as well as he did, I think this will boost his confidence."
Jameer Nelson led the Magic with 21 points and seven assists. Tobias Harris had 17 points and 15 rebounds. Arron Afflalo had 17 points. The Magic led only briefly, 57-56, in the second half after Afflalo hit a 3-point shot.
The Lakers regained the lead early in the third quarter on a basket by Earl Clark. They never lost it again.
Howard surpassed a Magic record for most free throws by an opponent (26) in the final minute of the third quarter. Then he went after the NBA record.
Howard had 19 points and 10 rebounds by intermission, carrying the Lakers to a 50-46 lead. World Peace added 13 points in that first half.
Harris, now wearing Howard's No. 12 Magic jersey, had 15 points and nine rebounds before halftime.
"He looked like the Dwight who dominated the league the past few seasons," said Magic center Nikola Vucevic. "He came out aggressive and did a good job. He looked better -- especially athleticism wise -- than he did earlier in the season."
The Magic led 23-22 after the first quarter, but they missed their first eight shots of the second quarter, allowing the Lakers to open an 11-point lead.
Howard made 9-of-19 free throws in the first half. Six of his attempts came when he was intentionally fouled late in the second quarter.
Howard gave the fans a little of everything, missing back-to-back free throws three different times, along with acrobatic dunks and athletic shot blocking.
Bryant had only three points in the first half, making a 3-pointer to open the scoring, then missing his next six shots.
NOTES: Dwight Howard, who played eight seasons with the Magic, returned to the Amway Center for the first time since last April. "I just think about all the things we did here as a team," he said Tuesday after a morning practice. "It didn't end right. It didn't end the way we wanted it to end. But I'm in a better place, and everybody has to move on." ... Jameer Nelson was the only Magic player on the court Tuesday who actually played with Howard during his Magic career. Hedo Turkoglu is suspended. Glen Davis is hurt, and everyone else has been traded or waived. ....Los Angeles' Pau Gasol worked out Tuesday in Orlando and is close to returning, according to coach Mike D'Antoni, who said that the forward/center could be the key to any postseason success. "We still have to get Pau back and get him integrated to get up to that top tier (of teams)," D'Antoni said. "We're playing a lot better than we were, but we're not there yet." Gasol hasn't played since Feb. 5, when he sustained a plantar fascia tear. "Pau is starting to run now, and he feels pretty good. So without setbacks, without being sore ... it's close." ... Despite all the hoopla surrounding the return of Howard, Magic coach Jacque Vaughn said his team didn't approach this game any differently. "It's the next game on the schedule," Vaughn said before the game. "Business as usual."