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Column: Dwight Howard’s ‘off the charts’ game shows his gratitude and new attitude

Lakers center Dwight Howard slam dunks during the second half of a 120-101 victory over the Charlotte Hornets at Staples Center on Oct. 27, 2019.
Lakers center Dwight Howard slam dunks during the second half of a 120-101 victory over the Charlotte Hornets at Staples Center on Oct. 27, 2019.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

He celebrated each of his four blocked shots by raising a triumphant hand to the sky and furiously wagged a decisive finger at the crowd.

He was gesturing, no, no, no.

But he was saying, yes, yes, yes.

Yes, this is the new Dwight Howard. Yes, this guy will be all energy and no distraction. Yes, the Lakers will be glad they took a chance.

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Three games into Howard’s season of reckoning, what seemed to be a terrible decision was transformed into pure poetry Sunday night in a Staples Center that rocked with raucous gratitude.

I wrote that the Lakers made a big mistake this summer in bringing back Howard.

But who knew it would be this Dwight Howard?

Coming off the bench, playing through the roof, this Howard was soaring and swatting and carrying the Lakers through slow stretches on renewed shoulders in a 120-101 victory over the outmanned Charlotte Hornets.

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“He was off the charts,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said, a far cry from those 2013 days when Howard was crushed by those charts.

Anthony Davis has 29 points and LeBron James scores 16 of his 20 in the fourth quarter as the Lakers pull away for a 120-101 victory over the Charlotte Hornets.

No longer expected to be Superman, Howard can just be super, man, and he was, with 16 points, 10 rebounds and four blocks while making all eight of his shots.

He began his night by rousting a sleeping Lakers team with an ally-oop dunk late in the first quarter. He was all over the court when they broke open the game late in the third quarter and early in the fourth.

“I remember telling him right after we called a timeout midway in the third … I said, ‘We need your energy,’” guard Alex Caruso recalled. “He said, ‘Yeah, I got you.’”

He sparked not only the Lakers, but the crowd, wagging his finger at them, holding his hands out while pleading for more noise, flexing his biceps and smiling as they showered him with cheers.

And when the game ended, Howard just kept going. After the final buzzer, he returned to the court in a sleeveless T-shirt and basketball shorts and took shots for 20 minutes with teammate Quinn Cook.

The remaining fans couldn’t believe their eyes. Even the ushers stopped to watch. Folks kept cheering him, urged him to keep firing, and felt so comfortable with him that one fellow finally shouted down a challenge of a high-priced game of one-on-one.

“Go home!” Howard said with a laugh.

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Maybe, truly, finally, it is Howard who has come home.

The last time anyone at Staples Center saw Howard in a Lakers uniform before this season, he was finishing his disappointing lone season here by getting tossed out of a 2013 playoff game with the San Antonio Spurs.

That Howard was haughty. That Howard was selfish. But six years later, at age 33, nearly a full season after he played in an NBA game, he has apparently shown up this fall filled with apparent humility.

Lakers center Dwight Howard, left, and teammate LeBron James flex after a second-half basket.
Lakers center Dwight Howard, left, and teammate LeBron James flex after a second-half basket against the Charlotte Hornets on Sunday.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

“I’m grateful,” he said Sunday night. “I think myself and the fans have been through a lot together.”

You could see it on the court in his 23 minutes Sunday, as he constantly smiled and seemed to soak everything in. You could hear it from fans who seemed relieved to finally be able to cheer for someone they long ago booed.

“Just to be back here, man, it means a lot,” Howard said. “I just take it all in, every second, every moment on the court. It’s valuable.”

It’s particularly valuable to a Lakers team that needs his bench strength and inside presence. They don’t need him to be a star, they need him to be a force, and Sunday night, he perfectly filled that role.

LeBron James scored only one basket in the first half. Anthony Davis scored just four points in the second half. Howard muscled his way to fill in the blanks.

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“Scoring how we want him to score, by crashing and rolling to the basket,” Vogel said. “Defensively was where I felt like he was dominant ... he got every rebound it seemed in his area.”

It seemed like Howard spent all of his minutes above the ground, flying around such that his teammates hung on for the ride until they could manage their own lift.

“He was ... a big part of us breaking the game open,” Vogel said. “Every shot that went up, it seemed like he got above-everybody-else types of rebounds.”

Vogel commended him not for his sensational act, but for how he played it.

“He was a star in his role tonight,” Vogel said. “Not the superstar he was the first time around, but to be a role player and a star in that role and tonight he was.”

Not only has Howard lost weight and found a new haircut, he has also seemingly discovered perspective.

“I just try to bring that energy and that effort and that intensity every night — and have fun doing it,” Howard said. “There’s only one goal, there’s only one mission and that’s to win a championship… but every moment counts. That’s how I approach it.”

He said all the right things after they signed him this summer, but who could believe it? This is a guy whom Kobe Bryant dismissed as someone who didn’t work enough and didn’t care enough. This is a guy whom the Lakers amazingly tried to sign after that 2012-2013 nightmare season, but Howard didn’t want the pressure and bolted town.

Who thought he could come back as a changed man? Well, even though they hedged their bets by giving him a nonguaranteed contract, the Lakers did by envisioning nights like Sunday.

“That’s why we brought him here,” James said. “We felt like while everyone else was writing him off, we felt like we would give him a real opportunity. We believe in him and believe in his word and he’s making the most of it and we’re truly excited to have him here right now.”

And, yeah, the Lakers know he has something to prove, and that’s part of the reason they believe in him.

“I think it means a lot to him to be back on the floor as well, obviously he wants to redeem himself from his first stint,” James said.

Howard walked away Sunday basking in a bit of that redemption, but promising that this was just a start.

“Whatever happened, how I used to play or think or act, that’s not me anymore,” he said. “Everything I do is based off my actions … I don’t want to talk about it, I just want to be about it.”

For one night, anyway, he was all about it, a gaudy first step in a long road back.


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