“Do you guys come in peace?”
Dwight Howard asked that question while sitting in front of his locker at Amway Center. Orlando hasn’t always been a friendly city for him in many ways. The way he left Orlando in the summer of 2012 is something he’s carried with him for years. Only this past summer, Howard says, did he finally release his ill feelings.
“I was super bitter at a lot of the things that transpired behind closed doors that none of the Magic fans or people really know about,” Howard said. “I never said anything about it. I never bashed or talked anything bad about this team. But I did have a lot of bitterness in my heart towards the organization and even the fans of how they treated me when I came back. But I let it go.
“I was super bitter, but I let it go. And by letting it go, it just dropped all the weight that I had and it just made me a better person.”
On Wednesday night, the Lakers (22-3) beat the Magic (11-13) 96-87 behind a triple-double from LeBron James. James finished with 25 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists. James was 11 for 24 shooting and Anthony Davis made six of 20 shots, to finish with 16 points, 12 rebounds, two blocked shots and two steals.
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope added 15 points, making five of 10 shots and four of seven three-pointers. Jared Dudley, whose playing time increased with Kyle Kuzma out because of a sprained left ankle, scored nine points, making three of four three-point attempts.
The Lakers have now won 12 road games in a row.
“What I love about this win is we can win in a variety of different ways,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said. “We have great versatility. The last game we played 140 points and we were able to secure that victory in a different style of game. This one was more of a grind-it-out game and our defense held up.”
After the Lakers raced to a 24-point lead on the Magic in the first half, a young and talented Orlando team stormed back to tie the score at 71 in the fourth quarter. The Lakers then went on a 10-0 run with the help of three-pointers from Dudley and Alex Caruso.
Not long after that run, an altercation on the court delayed the game. Magic forward Jonathan Isaac fouled Howard, and after some pushing and shoving, Howard and Orlando’s Michael Carter-Williams were assessed technical fouls. Dudley and Orlando’s Wes Iwundu were ejected from the game with double technicals.
“We’re a family, we step up for each other,” Howard said. “I’m just happy he did that. Wasn’t nothing going on, trying to ruffle the game up a little bit, get their minds off winning the game or trying to win, and it worked.”
Howard wasn’t the only Laker making his return. Vogel returned for the first time since coaching the Magic from 2016 to 2018. But Howard’s return is more polarizing for fans in Orlando.
They drafted him first overall in 2004, the year after James was the first overall pick, and expected Howard to have a franchise-changing impact like Shaquille O’Neal did years before. Howard led the Magic to the NBA Finals, where they lost to the Lakers, and then to a loss in the Eastern Conference finals before the relationship between Howard and the Magic started to fray.
The Magic eventually traded Howard to the Lakers, where Howard became a villain again.
He has spent this season making amends with the fans in Los Angeles by being a positive presence with the Lakers as an energetic reserve center.
“He’s thriving,” James said. “It’s gonna add more years to his career. It’s going to add an ingredient to our team for success because of the role that he’s accepting. He’s just making the most of it every single night. … And with zero ego.”
Howard played 18 minutes Wednesday. He scored two points and made one of four shots. He grabbed six rebounds and had one steal and one block. He might not know that, since he says he doesn’t check his own numbers after games.
Once the final buzzer sounded, he walked across the court to greet two of his children. He picked up his daughter and squeezed her and kissed her.
He hopes that his relationship with Orlando can one day reach a point where they feel comfortable honoring him during the game.
“That would be great,” Howard said. “I think a lot of people just continue to bring up the past, which there’s no need to. It’s over with, it’s nothing you can do about it. Everybody had a piece of what happened back then. But it’s no need to always talk about it, no need to hate somebody for leaving a basketball team.”