LOS ANGELES — One by one, the Orlando Magic walked over to the Lakers bench, and embraced the amiable big man who left them in August. One by one, they chatted with him and laughed with him and showed how much they missed him. And then, one by one, they said goodbye and good luck to their old friend Earl Clark.
The other amiable big man who went from Orlando to Los Angeles three months ago was already gone, down the tunnel and into the locker room, without so much as a handshake. Dwight Howard fled the court Sunday night, upstaged by the organization he paralyzed and the team he abandoned, in a game that will sting far more than the other eight the Lakers have already lost. The final score, 113-103, might as well hang on the Magic marquee all season.
In the age of the super team, the awkward reunion that follows the nasty break-up has become an annual tradition. It is a date to circle on the schedule, when the superstar who jilted a franchise is forced to confront those he left behind. Like LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul and Chris Bosh, Howard had many reasons to move to a mega market, but in public he only acknowledged one. He said his new club gave him a chance to win a title, implying that his old one did not, an indictment of players who used to be pals. Howard was probably correct, of course, but he still had to face them.
Most stars admit they take no pleasure in facing their former teams, and Saturday, Howard sounded contrite about the handling of his Orlando exit. “There are some things I could’ve done better,” he told reporters. But he appeared as carefree as ever in the locker room at Staples Center before Sunday’s game, impersonating Kobe Bryant and re-enacting in slow motion the 3-pointer he made Friday. “You know how I do my 3-point clinic before practice?” Howard hollered at Steve Nash. Ducking into the lunch room, Nash shot back: “I forgot about that.” Howard guffawed.
The Magic, finally, did not laugh along with him. Jameer Nelson, who heard Howard’s pleas to join higher-profile point guards like Deron Williams and Paul, played despite tendonitis in his Achilles tendon. Shooting guard Arron Afflalo, who was traded from Denver as part of Howard’s three-team power play, pumped his fist to celebrate a 3-pointer at halftime buzzer. Almost everyone in Orlando is new, from the general manager to the coach to the players, but the bench still erupted after every basket and Nelson pointed at them after a clinching 3.
“We can all say it’s just a basketball game, but because of things that happened in the past, it means a lot more,” Nelson said. “We went through some things last year.”
Given all the damage Howard wrought — demanding a trade, undermining a general manager, forcing out a coach — it was not enough for the Magic to simply beat him. They had to humiliate him in the process. When Howard checked back into the game with a little more than seven minutes left in the fourth quarter, and the Lakers up by three points, the Magic decided to foul him. And foul him again. And keep fouling him. This was the strategy so many teams employed against them in recent years and finally they used it to their benefit.
Seven times in the last seven minutes the Magic sent Howard to the free-throw line and watched him flail away. Howard posted a respectable 21 points and 15 rebounds in the game, but he went 9 for 21 from the free-throw line and 7 of 14 in the fourth quarter. Meanwhile, the Magic could not miss, scoring 40 in the fourth, many of them on the kind of layups and dunks Howard was acquired to eliminate. When the Lakers called timeout, following a 3-pointer by J.J. Redick, Howard gazed at the Magic bench.
“It wasn’t emotional,” said Howard, who did spend more time hanging out with David Beckham in the courtside seats than any of the Magic players. His main interaction was a brief shoving match under the basket with Josh McRoberts. “He didn’t talk to me and I didn’t talk to him,” said forward Glen Davis.
After the game, Lakers head coach Mike D’Antoni found Howard by his locker, and spoke quietly with him for several minutes. This supposed juggernaut is 8-9, and even though Howard was never expected to fully recover from back surgery until January, that doesn’t totally explain his woeful free-throw shooting. The Lakers didn’t expect him to morph into Ray Allen, but he is shooting 47 percent from the line, 11 points off his career average.
Not only is D’Antoni sticking with Howard at the end of games, when teams are hacking him, he’s doing it at the expense of Pau Gasol. For the second time, D’Antoni benched Gasol at the end of the fourth quarter in an attempt to space the floor for Howard. “I’d like to be out there,” Gasol said. “It’s upsetting for me as a player.” He is getting no sympathy from Kobe Bryant, however, who urged Gasol to “put on his big boy pants” and adjust.
Once again, drama and unrest have found Dwight Howard’s team. In a karmic twist, the Magic were the ones piling it on.