Dwight Howard hears it from L.A. crowd, then Clippers make the noise

Monday night at Staples Center, many fans came to harass the contrarian to that ever popular Randy Newman song. They wanted to see Dwight Howard fail because he didn't love L.A.

Actually, it was just the Lakers portion of the metropolis that the star player didn't care for all that much.

Howard's new team, the Houston Rockets, were here to play the Clippers, a game that was to be, for some, a sideshow to the Dwight Returns soap opera.

The real show was a Clippers offensive blitz that earned a few new entries in their record book and was a dazzler for that portion of the crowd of 19,404 that had come to see basketball more than to boo Howard.

The Clippers romped, 137-118, after taking a 78-66 lead at the end of the half. The 78 points were a Clippers franchise record in Los Angeles for a first half, and tied the record for any half. The only time they topped that was in 1984, when they were in their last season in San Diego and scored 87.

Any semblance of defense in this game was hard to spot, but the fans had a blast. Plenty of alley-oops from the Lob City team; plenty of stops and starts and jukes and loops from the master of such things, the Clippers' Chris Paul.

Paul was sensational, as he can be, with 23 points and 17 assists. The other starting guard, J.J. Redick, had 26. The rest of the Clippers just had a lot of fun.

So, in actuality, on a night when it was billed as the story, Dwight Returns was about as meaningful as the buildup to Y2K. Lots of noise and zero significance. Maybe it was just that Lakers fans couldn't wait for the actual return — Rockets at Lakers on Feb. 19 and April 8.

So this early-season Clippers game presented the best chance so far. And when Howard was introduced, boo they did. It appeared to be a combination of Lakers fans and general Los Angeles pride. It takes a lot to get Lakers and Clippers fans to lock arms in any cause, but Dwight Returns did.

Whatever the faction, they booed Howard when he got the ball and cheered when he lost it. They cheered his fouls and jeered his clanked free throws. To all of it, Howard responded by smiling that huge, magnetic smile that has carried him to superstar status and an $88-million, four-year contract in Houston.

He missed his first two shots, eventually picked up his third foul with 1 minute 23 seconds left in the first period and played only 6:27 of the first half, managing four points and two rebounds —this from the leading rebounder in the league in his winter of discontent with the Lakers last season.

Go figure.

What was supposed to be the story wasn't, at least in the first half. If nothing else, it helped the TV camera operators. They seemed to have orders to point it at Dwight all night, no matter where he was, and so they did. Nothing like that classic sitting-on-the-bench shot.

When free agent Howard opted to take his 6-foot-11 body to Houston after a year with the Lakers, it brought a firestorm of reaction, almost as if leaving L.A. was some sort of felony. The norm, apparently, is to lust after being a Laker, not leave them.

No less than the often witty Shaquille O'Neal — who had more than his share of troubles in his time with the Lakers, as well as great successes — fed the frenzy with the quip after Howard's departure that Howard would probably be better "in a little city like Houston."

Before the game, Rockets Coach Kevin McHale explained much of what ailed Howard last season. It was simpler than attitude or anger. He was still hurting. He had had back surgery and it takes longer than he had to recover.

"Last July, when we got him," McHale said, "he was not healthy."

McHale said the emphasis for the Rockets and Howard in the off-season was more rehabilitation and muscle flexibility than pick and rolls and a new offensive scheme.

Asked at the Rockets' morning shootaround about the injuries, Howard took the high road and said, "I don't want people to think that's an excuse."

Asked why people in Los Angeles don't want to let this go, he said, "I don't know. Fans are very passionate about their team, and unfortunately, the Lakers have the most fans in the world."

Howard ended up playing a paltry 26 minutes after early foul trouble, scoring 14 points and getting nine rebounds. He made five of 10 free throws.

You could have seen lots of that at Lakers games last season. Nothing changes and everything does.

In this case, the uniform.


Times staff writer Ben Bolch contributed to this column.

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