ORLANDO, Fla. — Courtside fans of the Orlando Magic were trying to rankle Dwight Howard, yelling at him early in the fourth quarter.
“You can’t win without Kobe!” one of them screamed.
To which Howard replied from the Lakers’ bench, “That’s true.”
Bryant and Howard continued to solidify their recently developed relationship Tuesday in Howard’s return to Orlando.
Howard was a force everywhere, even the free-throw line, as Bryant stood back in the shadows of the Lakers’ 106-97 victory at Amway Arena.
The boos started when Howard led the Lakers onto the court, and he didn’t care. He was booed again during pregame introductions, then whenever the in-house announcer mentioned his name after scoring.
None of it was shocking. Magic fans anticipated this since the day the Lakers acquired him last August.
This was Howard’s show from the start, and he didn’t disappoint, setting two free-throw records and tying another while scoring a season-high 39 points and taking 16 rebounds.
He made 25 of 39 free throws and continually reminded Orlando Coach Jacque Vaughn of the NBA’s worst in-game strategy this season, making 16 of 20 from the line when fouled intentionally.
The Hack-a-Howard was a dismal failure in the second half, over and over, boring fans in the arena but delighting Howard.
“I was happy I was able to face my fears at the free-throw line and knock them down,” Howard said. “I thought that was the best thing for me, to come in here and really learn how to block a lot of stuff out and play and not allow it to affect me. That’s been big all season, to where I would hear the crowd and I’d get up there and ‘Brick.’”
Maybe now he’ll also swim with sharks, sky dive and bungee jump. He’s starting to live up to his Superman moniker again, averaging 24.8 points and 13 rebounds his last four games.
Beforehand, Bryant sensed the rancor that would come from a city that felt abandoned by Howard after eight seasons. He had a simple message for the Lakers center: “Just come out here and kill ‘em.”
So Howard did, at the line in a historic way.
With 39 free-throw attempts, he tied the NBA record he set last year against Golden State and established a Lakers standard, blowing past Shaquille O’Neal’s old mark of 31 in 1999 against Chicago.
His 25 made free throws erased the Lakers record held by Bryant, who twice had 23 in a game, most recently in 2006 against New York.
“I think that’s terrific,” Bryant said, smiling.
Howard was a 47.8% free-throw shooter before Tuesday and missed seven of his first nine. But he almost couldn’t miss after that, as Magic players kept slapping at him away from the ball until whistles blew.
“It’s an interesting tactic, especially when he’s making them,” Bryant said.
The Lakers (34-31) have won four consecutive games for only the second time this season. They’ll also get healthier soon.
Pau Gasol is steadily coming back from an internal tear in the bottom of his right foot that has sidelined him since Feb. 5. He took part in basketball-related drills Tuesday and could be running by Thursday, making a return to game action likely next week unless there are unexpected setbacks.
Bryant didn’t shoot well Tuesday, missing 10 of 14 attempts. He had 11 points and eight assists. He didn’t mind. He had a lot to say about Howard, predicting this game could be a “big boost for his confidence.”
“He wasn’t distracted. He wasn’t down about coming back or anything like that. His energy propelled us. I think it will do wonders for him.”
Howard had 19 points and 10 rebounds by halftime, even blowing some kisses to Orlando fans as the Lakers took a 50-46 lead.
The main separation happened early in the fourth quarter as Antawn Jamison made three layups within two minutes for a 16-point lead.
Jameer Nelson had 21 points for Orlando (18-47), owner of the NBA’s second-worst record but a winner against the Lakers earlier this season, 113-103.
Howard had the last laugh. Twenty-five of them, actually. From the free-throw line, of all places.