- Dave McMenamin, ESPN.com
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LOS ANGELES -- Talk about a debut.
Howard played his first game as a Laker in Sunday's 99-92 loss to the Sacramento Kings, nearly six months to the day after undergoing major back surgery to repair a herniated disk. It was barely noticeable that Howard had ever been out as he filled up the box score with 19 points on 8-for-12 shooting, 12 rebounds, four blocks and two assists while playing 33 minutes.
"It was fun," Howard told reporters after the game. "I had a lot of fun tonight. I'm just thankful and blessed to be able to step on the floor again."
The 26-year-old center did not waste time getting his name in the scorebook. He assisted on a Kobe Bryant 3-pointer on the Lakers' first possession and threw down an alley-oop off a Pau Gasol feed less than a minute later for his first bucket while wearing purple and gold.
Bryant returned the favor to Howard late in the second quarter, lofting a pass up towards the rim that Howard dutifully grabbed and sent home for a slam, sending the crowd into a frenzy.
"I just wanted to make sure he gets his feet wet," Bryant said. "There's been a lot of expectations placed upon him and upon us to live up to the hype and I didn't want him to feel nervous."
Howard appreciated the love from his new hometown fans.
"I actually shed a couple tears tonight during the starting lineups," Howard said. "One of my teammates caught me so I had to like try to hide it. I was just excited and a little emotional because I haven't been on the court in awhile."
Howard's debut infused the rest of the Lakers' celebrated starting lineup with energy and the group looked sharp playing together as a unit, starting off the game by making 6 of 8 shots. The Lakers shot 60.6 percent as a team in the first half and assisted on 15 of their 20 baskets.
"He made the game easier for everyone," said Steve Nash, the Lakers' other major offseason addition along with Howard. "He's such a presence and takes up so much space when he just rolls to the basket. So, it's a gift to play with someone like that."
Howard, maligned for not developing enough of an offensive repertoire during his days with the Orlando Magic, even showed off a pretty left-handed hook shot in the third quarter that would have made Kareem Abdul-Jabbar proud.
Just as impressive as Howard showing off his moves was Howard showing no signs of tentativeness because of his back injury. Howard got tangled up with the Kings' DeMarcus Cousins and fell hard to the floor following a putback layup in the second half but bounced right back up to his feet to go to the free throw line.
"I didn't really feel anything," Howard said. "I'm going to have some tough falls because I play hard and like to try to block all those shots. But, it was cool. I don't feel anything."
On a later possession Gasol was matched up with Cousins. It seemed almost unfair when Howard came over to double team the young big man, completely erasing Cousins' shot attempt.
"He's a guy that defensively covers a lot of ground," said Gasol. "He's very athletic, he alters a lot of shots, you feel like you have a safety right behind you. We can't rely on him all the time to do that. We have to keep guys in front of us. But he's always going to be active to block shots because he's such a force in there."
Howard admitted to being a little rusty and gave himself a "B" when asked to grade his performance, noting that he can improve upon his 3-for-8 shooting from the free throw line. He also had a team-high five turnovers.
"You could tell his timing was a little bit off at times," said Lakers coach Mike Brown. "A couple of times where he probably would have blocked the shot he was maybe a half a step late and then offensively at times he was half a step late in certain areas but overall, I thought he looked good."
Howard was cleared to play before the game by longtime Lakers trainer Gary Vitti, who Howard has dubbed "Father Vitti."
"We had our little confession session in the back," Howard recalled. "I said, 'Father, I've been feeling pretty good. What do you think about tonight?' He said, 'Well son, you'll be great. Just go out there and play.' "
The much-anticipated appearance by Howard was greeted with a sold-out Staples Center crowd that gave the preseason game a playoff-like atmosphere despite the fact their opponent was Sacramento, a team few people expect to contend for the postseason, and L.A.'s paltry 0-5 preseason record coming into the night.
Before Howard could show off his yellow camouflaged arm sleeves in the game, his teammates played a prank on him by lingering back in the tunnel and allowing Howard to sprint onto the court alone.
"I heard someone say, 'You got to go out first, this is your first game,' " Nash said. "So when we went out I just grabbed Pau and held him back. ... We got that kind of spontaneity in this locker room."
"That was supposed to be something for rookies but they got me," Howard said with a smile.
Brown said before the game that Howard would have no minute restrictions and would be available for the Lakers' two remaining preseason games -- Wednesday against the Los Angeles Clippers at Staples Center and Thursday against the Kings in San Diego.
"There's a lot of bright spots," Howard said. "We're going to continue to get better. I'd say midseason we'll have everything flowing just the right way."
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