|ESPN.com: NBA||[Print without images]|
ORLANDO, Fla. -- Dwight Howard said he plans to approach his first game back in Orlando as business as usual, but Steve Nash begged to differ.
"This is the longest Dwight has ever worked on his game after practice," Nash jokingly yelled out to the throng of approximately 75 media members assembled at shootaround Tuesday in advance of the Los Angeles Lakers' game against the Magic.
Howard worked on midrange jumpers and extended his range all the way out to the 3-point line, mercifully stopping after a couple of long-range misses to talk to those waiting to hear him discuss his return to the city that was home for his first eight NBA seasons.
"All that stuff is over with now," Howard said. "Today is a new day. Whatever happened in the past, I'm going to leave it behind me. Like I said, I have nothing but love for the fans here. They treated me well. It didn't end right. It didn't end the way we all wanted it to end, but I'm in a better place and everybody has to move on."
Howard told reporters Sunday that his return was going to be "very emotional for me," which prompted Kobe Bryant to blurt, "Emotional? Man, I'll talk to him. Just go out there and bust your [behind], man. Show them what they missed in him. Save the emotional [stuff] for when you retire. Please."
Not only is Howard about to play his first game in Orlando since being traded to the Lakers in August, he's also making his first trip back to the city since undergoing back surgery in April. What was it like for him to visit his old stomping grounds?
"It felt normal," Howard said. "I was happy to come back, see my house, go to Waffle House, get a good meal. That was fun. So, I was happy about that."
What would really make Howard happy is a win against his former team. The Lakers lost to the Magic 113-103 on Dec. 2 at Staples Center. Howard had 21 points and 15 rebounds but shot just 9-of-21 from the foul line as Orlando employed a "Hack-a-Howard" strategy to take control of the game.
The loss knocked L.A. to just 8-9 at the time, but Howard and his team are much improved since. The Lakers are 33-31 after going 8-2 since the All-Star break, with Howard averaging 15.5 points, 14.8 rebounds and 2.6 blocks in those 10 games.
"I'm in a lot better shape, which is great," said Howard, described by Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni as "100 percent better" on Tuesday. "The first time we played them I wasn't in good shape, so I was looking forward to coming back here and playing in better shape."
Howard's conditioning has helped the Lakers catch the Utah Jazz with the same record as they vie for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference. The Jazz have the tiebreaker.
"Just go out there and play," Howard said. "That's the biggest thing. We're playing great basketball. I just want to continue to do that. We don"t have to do anything extra, just play the way we've been playing the last couple games and come out here with a win."
The Magic's win in L.A. was a high point for a team that's gone just 12-36 since. Coming into Tuesday, Orlando has the second-worst record in the league at 18-46.
"I really haven't paid attention too much about any other team but ours," Howard said, "but Jameer [Nelson] is the last one here and the other guys are hurt, but I'm happy to see Jameer is still playing."
Nelson took exception to Howard telling an L.A. television station that the Magic was "a team full of people who nobody wanted" when he played for them. Howard said he hasn't spoken to Nelson but has tried to reach out to the point guard he came into the league with as rookies in 2004-05. Nelson will be the only one of Howard's former teammates in uniform Tuesday -- Hedo Turkoglu is suspended and Glen Davis is out recovering from foot surgery.
Howard focused on the positive while acknowledging that there still are some hurt feelings.
"We had a lot of great memories here," Howard said. "They'll never be taken away from me or from the people who supported us. So, I think I had eight great years here. We did a lot of great things. I saw a city go from a team where it was just like nobody in the stands to we got a new arena and we're a packed house every night to see our team play. It was great to see that. Me and Jameer accomplished a lot here, and our goal was to get people to come and support us. We did that."
Howard said he had not run into any Magic fans yet, save for a few at Waffle House, but was grateful to them. Yet he also joked last week that he might wear earplugs for the booing he expects to hear.
"I have nothing but love for the fans here," Howard said Tuesday. "They made me into the player I am today. I'll always be thankful for that. I came here a boy and left a man, and it's made me a better person being here. So, thank you to all the fans who supported me even through all the bad times."
Metta World Peace stepped in to support Howard on Tuesday, trying to diffuse the media attention by cutting through the throng to put his arm around the All-Star center.
"I got to get some of this TV time," World Peace said. "All these cameras ... keep talking to Dwight, y'all."