While everyone was jeering from the stands Tuesday in Orlando and getting something off their chest, Dwight Howard was busy placing something back on his own: A big red "S."
At least that's how it appeared on a night when one of those cliché moments happened in sports, where the returning ex-hero is booed by the former home crowd and he delivers a smashing response and then the two sides smugly go their separate ways, claiming victory. Seen that a few dozen times, right? Well, all the Lakers want to know, and need to know, at this point is whether the Orlando visit will mark a turning point in the season of a player who has lived through and endured a number of wicked twists.
"It was a hostile environment but I think that was something that was good for me," said Howard, who added the experience was exactly "what I needed as a player."
A much-wanted and received wakeup call, then. And so, with the ugliness of Orlando behind him perhaps for good, the Lakers now wonder:
Is he finally feeling frisky and healthy after off-season back surgery sapped more of his strength and mobility than he expected?
Has the bumpy ride he's experienced these last 10 months hardened him and made him mentally tougher?
Does he have what it takes to match the grit and determination of his perfectionist teammate, or at least come close enough to satisfy the demanding Kobe Bryant?
And finally, can he be the guy to take a more active lead in pushing the Lakers to the playoffs and maybe beyond and show that he's worth a nine-figure investment this summer? Or did Howard just tap into his emotional furnace for one solitary night and will he soon get back to surfacing every other game?
The Lakers have now won 18 of their last 24 games. This isn't the same team that fired its coach five games in. They may not be the championship contender everyone thought but making the playoffs are looking better with every Utah and Houston slip, and getting the sixth seed isn't beyond their reach. That would give them an easier first-round matchup -- Lakers vs. Clippers, anyone? -- and create some stirring drama and possibilities.
"We struggled early, saw some things that needed to be done, made some changes and now we're trying to get better and move on," said Howard, and that process begins with him.
After taking a few hits on his way out of Orlando last summer, he absorbed a bunch more in his return, smiling his way through a suspicious Magic tactic of hack-a-Howard. It was a silly strategy that made you wonder if they were trying to appease the fans who wanted blood, and was made sillier when Howard uncharacteristically made the Magic pay from the line. He tied his NBA record of 39 attempts, made 25 (and went 16-of-20 in the second half) and for one night owned the multi-million-dollar arena he helped build. The season-high 39 points and accompanying 16 rebounds meant little in the small picture, because it came against a team playing for lottery odds. In the larger scope, is this the type of performance the Lakers can expect from Howard here in the stretch run, where they need it most? Minus the free throw accuracy, which nobody believes he'll keep up?
"My whole thing was to come out here and have fun," said Howard, and that's not too difficult to do when the numbers and the results start falling your way.
Here was Magic Johnson's breathless tweets after the Laker win: "Laker Nation: Wow. Wow. That's the Dwight Howard we've been looking for."
And one more from one of the Lakers' biggest critics/fans:
The Lakers are a team anxious to see one of their own develop a rhythm other than Kobe, who's on an MVP-type roll but only because he's had no choice. Steve Nash is 39 and can only turn back the clock so often. The other Lakers are role players whose purpose is to fill in the blanks and complement the three future Hall of Famers. This leaves Howard, a four-time defensive player of the year and rugged rebounder while in Orlando, yet somewhat of a mixed bag so far in L.A.
But not on Tuesday.
"He was buying into what we need him to do," said Kobe.
Finally, we might add. Ever since he pulled on a Laker uniform, Howard heard his pain threshold questioned by Kobe, sat a few games with nagging injuries, was blistered on the court by an angry Nash, had his All-Star starting position mocked by skeptical fans and media and heard it from ex-Magic teammates who felt Howard belittled their skills in a TV interview. Through it all, Howard's performance sputtered along inconsistently and only in glimpses has he been the dominant center he was for most of his eight years in Orlando.
As the Lakers prepare for the Hawks in Atlanta, his hometown, Howard is averaging 16 points and 12 rebounds and those numbers figure to improve if he keeps his current pace. More important than the numbers, though, is his chemistry with Kobe and his ability to keep his sensitive side hidden. With the Magic out of the way, nobody cares anymore how he left Orlando or what the city and his ex-mates think about him. It's nothing, really. Everyone had their fun for one night. It was the biggest thing to happen this season to the Magic, who are preparing for the draft lottery. It meant little to the Lakers, beating up on a basement team, other than allowing them to extend their winning stretch and watching how Howard reacted when provoked and put in a tense situation.
Things are finally looking up for Howard and the Lakers and speaking of which, the sky hasn't fallen after all. At least it's not in the forecast. Once they're done with this road trip and another, their stretch gets favorable. In April the Lakers only have to leave Staples Center once for a game. Pau Gasol announced he's "close" to returning from a torn plantar fascia. Remember, the Lakers haven't been whole this season. For someone who loves to laugh, and gets hammered for that (he's not taking the game seriously enough!), Howard might get the last chuckle if the Lakers reach the playoffs and make noise once there.
"All that stuff is over with now," he said. "Whatever happened in the past, I'm going to leave it behind me. Today is a new day. I'm in a better place and everyone has to move on."
Does that mean moving forward and up for Dwight? If you know the answer, please relay it to Kobe and the Lakers. Their season depends on it. Their future, too.