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Saturday, January 21, 2012
Despite the rumors, Howard all business

By Zach McCann
ESPN.com

ORLANDO -- Friday night's 92-80 victory over the Los Angeles Lakers was perhaps the most awkward night of this young season for Dwight Howard and the Orlando Magic.

The Lakers, as one of three teams Howard's agent can negotiate trades with, are linked to new rumors involving the Magic's superstar center almost daily. And the man opposite Howard on Friday -- Andrew Bynum -- is the player the Magic would almost certainly receive in a potential deal.

Howard's day was filled with Lakers-fueled Twitter messages, media reports and fans pleading with him to stay in town. That's not unlike any other day for Howard -- the most sought-after player in the league -- but the passion was turned up even higher.

The off-the-court circus didn't show in Howard's play, though.

Howard controlled the game on defense and dominated the glass, finishing with 21 points and 23 rebounds and further proving that he is, indeed, the NBA's premier center.

And it's not close.

Bynum, who many consider the next-best center in the NBA, put up 10 points, 12 rebounds and five fouls for the slumping Lakers.

"Tonight's game was not about Andrew Bynum and Dwight Howard," Howard said after the game. "It was about the Magic and the Lakers. That was the only thing that was on my mind, was getting a win. There's no need to go back and forth about me and him."

Howard, however, knows he can't get away from it.

One fan sitting behind the south basket, with the Magic ahead by double digits in the first quarter, yelled, "This is who you want to play for?!" There were numerous fans holding signs requesting Howard choose Orlando over Los Angeles. And most of the postgame questions from the media revolved around his connection with L.A.

"Right now, I'm in Orlando," said Howard, repeating the same line he's said all year. "That's the only thing that matters."

When asked if he thinks he'll be traded this season, Howard declined to answer.

"Despite everything that goes on outside the court, I'm just going to go out every night and do my job to help my team win," he said. "That's the only thing that I'm concerned with. I don't care about all the trade talks and whatever. I'll have to cross that bridge when it's that time. But right now I'm with the Magic and I'm going to give this city, our team, our fans 100 percent."

That fact can't be denied. Howard is on a tear, averaging 25 rebounds per game over the past five games, and he's led the Magic to six wins in seven games.

And he clearly outplayed Bynum, the leading All-Star vote-getter among West centers, on Friday night. Howard's athleticism, defensive presence and rebounding ability were a step above Bynum.

Howard forced Bynum into early foul trouble, mostly off postups. Howard had 10 points and 15 rebounds at halftime; Bynum, one and three.

"He gets a lot of touches and I got five fouls, so in the first half I wasn't able to play too much," Bynum said. "I thought we did a decent job on him without fouling for a little while and then I got in foul trouble early and Pau [Gasol] played good D. I think [Howard] shot poorly from the field but he was able to get to the line."

If nothing else, the performance showed that Howard is the league's best center -- no matter what Shaquille O'Neal says on national television -- and a Howard-for-Bynum swap is not an even deal. Maybe it's the best deal the Magic can get for their superstar center, but it's certainly not a fair deal.

"None of that matters when we step on the floor," Howard said again. "The only thing that we care about as a team, and myself, is winning the game. We joke around in the locker room about all the rumors and all the stuff that goes on, but when we step on the floor, we all have one objective and that's to win, and play hard."

Howard claimed he had nothing to prove against Bynum and the Lakers on Friday night.

But he went ahead and proved it anyway.