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Column: Dwight Howard’s second act with the Lakers has been ‘pure joy’ for both sides

Dwight Howard leads Lakers to the court before Jan. 7 Knicks game at Staples Center.
Dwight Howard leads the Lakers to the court before a game against the New York Knicks on Jan. 7 at Staples Center.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Before he settled himself into a chair to face the reporters who waited around his locker, Dwight Howard decided he needed a fresh towel. The path between his chair and the shower area was a straight line across the room, but he didn’t take the direct route. He twirled and did a pirouette along the way, turning an ordinary chore into a jubilant dance for the sheer pleasure of the movement and the moment.

Howard’s second act with the Lakers has been one big happy dance, a reprise that has been surprisingly successful — on a team that’s been surprisingly successful — and refreshingly free of drama.The only clash on Monday, after Howard contributed season highs of 21 points and 15 rebounds in a 128-99 demolition of the Cleveland Cavaliers, occurred when Howard and LeBron James had different songs playing at high volume in the locker room after the game. Team player that he has become, Howard deferred to James and turned his tunes off.

Howard is having fun, and the Lakers are having no trouble winning even without Anthony Davis (bruised buttocks) and, on Monday, minus Rajon Rondo (jammed finger). Howard couldn’t resist raising his right arm in triumph and smiling widely when he made a three-point shot late in the fourth quarter, and the crowd at Staples Center roared its approval in response.

“I think a lot of times in the past it wasn’t accepted for guys to have fun like this on the court. But I think what it’s showing is just pure joy,” Howard said. “For me, this is like my sanctuary. For artists, they want to show how thankful they are, they make music. For a basketball player, it’s on the court.”

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Getting a Dwight Howard jersey at the Lakers’ team store might be difficult, but it’s easy to see how big of a season the once-maligned center has had with the team.

Howard came off the bench to record his second consecutive double-double and play a key role in a second-half Lakers push that bowled over the Cavaliers. After a four-for-six shooting performance and eight points in the first half, Howard made all five of his shots in the second half, including that rare three. “He was a monster tonight,” coach Frank Vogel said of Howard, who’s averaging 7.7 points and 7.3 rebounds per game and played in all of the team’s first 40 games.

“I did anticipate that if he came in and his attitude was right and his role acceptance was what we had hoped it would be, that he could be a heck of a piece, a heck of an asset for us,” Vogel said, “and so I did anticipate that he could have a strong impact — maybe not as much as he’s having.”

Some of his teammates weren’t so sure what they’d be getting when Howard signed a one-year, non-guaranteed contract as a free agent in August. The move reeked of desperation on the part of the Lakers after DeMarcus Cousins tore his ACL in August. Howard’s departure from the Lakers in 2013 had been acrimonious. A return was completely unexpected.

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He has dispelled all of the doubts and questions that surrounded him by providing energy, experience, depth, and those bursts of emotion that boost his teammates’ spirits. His veteran minimum contract of $2.564 million was guaranteed last week. It’s proving to be a bargain.

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Dwight Howard dunks during the Lakers’ win over the Cavaliers on Monday at Staples Center. He finished with season highs of 21 points and 15 rebounds.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

“I think a lot of times in the league, you get MO’s about you. People came and said he was a bad teammate and did all this, but he’s been amazing. An amazing teammate,” Lakers forward Kyle Kuzma said.

“Always team first, looking to help guys, pull guys aside. He doesn’t really care about himself. He has no ego. It’s very rare, especially for someone that’s like him, probably a future Hall of Famer. He’s done a lot in his career. But he’s been amazing.”

Over the years, James saw the capabilities of Howard, an eight-time all-star and three-time defensive player of the year, but this version of Howard was older, had bounced around the league and had to get accustomed to coming off the bench. Howard, who turned 34 last month, has been reborn.

“He’s accepted his role and he’s thrived in it, and he hasn’t had any excuses or anything,” James said. “We’re just happy to have him a part of this club.”

Not as happy as Howard is to be here, with a team that has won nine games in a row and leads the Western Conference but isn’t forgetting its bigger goals in a season that will reach the halfway mark when the Lakers play host to Orlando on Wednesday. Howard had a good feeling about what could happen, and so far it’s gone as he imagined.

After Kyle Kuzma’s name came up in trade speculation, the forward has become a major contributor to the Lakers with Anthony Davis out because of an injury.

“It’s just about manifestation, you know,” he said. “Just felt like coming into this season, this was going to be our year and everybody had that same attitude, that we’re going to work hard, we’re going to prepare ourselves for a championship. And you know, every day we feel like that’s the championship. Every practice, every time we’re in the weight room, it’s always about championship. And that’s the mentality that we want to have. We want to set a standard here in L.A. that every day is about winning a championship.”

His personal bests on Monday weren’t important to him. He said he didn’t even look at the stat sheet and paid no attention to the numbers. Even so, his performance was a memorable pirouette in the dance of this remarkable season.

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“I’m just happy to be out there playing basketball,” he said. “Playing here in L.A. has been such a blessing for me and I cherish every single moment. So when I’m out there on the floor I can’t do nothing, but give 135% and have fun in the process.”

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