Eat your heart out, Orlando.
Howard was greeted with an ensemble of boos and general jeers when his name was announced. It was the welcome he expected and one, judging by his bemused facial expression, he seemed to enjoy.
As much as this was about Dwight's return to Orlando, though, it is now about the Lakers recapturing that eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference.
Superman (Iron Man?) and crew came out gunning, seemingly ready to blow the Magic out of the water in the first quarter—except it didn't pan out that way.
Orlando hung tough, taking a one-point lead into the second quarter and staying within four headed into halftime. The Magic then found themselves within striking distance as they entered the final period.
Courtesy of an odd-ball lineup to start the fourth, though, the Lakers began to pull away. Orlando made one last run, but it was staved off by Howard himself, who left the game after his third emphatic block.
Save for Derrick Rose's return, this is The Return most of us have been waiting for.
And it was one Howard (and the Lakers) made the most of.
Man oh man did Steve Nash have a first quarter.
Orlando was allowing Nash to have his way early. The lane was open for Nash to drive down and he took full advantage, attacking the rim and even treating us to a trademark teardrop of his.
The same cannot be said about the rest of the game, though.
Nash's path to the basket was cut off by the Magic in the second half, and he finished with just 11 points on 5-of-9 shooting. He also only had an uncharacteristic two assists. Though he has assumed the part of a scorer recently, rarely (if ever) do his turnovers (three) outnumber his assists.
Los Angeles' point man struggled on defense as well. He wasn't able to keep pace with the perpetually barreling Jameer Nelson and was exploited on numerous occasions off switches.
Still, Nash hit on a high percentage of his shots and kept the Magic's defense honest on the outside.
For that, we tip our hat slightly and hand him a "B."
I promise I'm not being overly generous here.
Kobe Bryant shot just 4-of-14 from the floor en route to scoring 11 points, but he once again flirted with a triple-double, grabbing seven rebounds and dishing out eight assists. The Black Mamba forced two steals as well.
Though Kobe was off from the field for most of the game, he nailed his first shot, a three-pointer to set the tone for the Lakers early. He kept gunning in that first quarter, perhaps trying to take some of the pressure off Dwight Howard, but just couldn't get into any sort of rhythm.
Recognizing that the Magic were going to smother him and that this wasn't his night from the field, Bryant turned to facilitating. At 34 and nearly two decades into his career, he continues to mesmerize us with some of those passing angles of his.
Kobe also continues to try and do far too much with the ball. There are certain possessions where he just needs to draw contract and shoot, as opposed to slashing through traffic and attempting a pass that winds up in the hands of the defense. Those three turnovers say it all.
And yet, look at me. More than three-quarters of the way through the season and I'm suggesting (pleading?) with Kobe to shoot more.
Who'd have thunk it?
Dwight Howard wasn't the only one making his return to Orlando.
In far less polarizing fashion, Earl Clark faced his former team and had yet another low key performance.
Clark tallied just six points on 2-of-5 shooting, and pitched in four rebounds, one steal and one block.
As defenses become more familiar with Clark's tendencies, they've adjusted and his numbers have suffered. That he doesn't force the action in the face of contested looks and clogged lanes is something to commend.
Defensively, Clark continued to use that lanky wing span of his. He was a bit aggressive when defending on the ball (he's lucky he didn't get called for more reach-ins), but his ability to recover in transition and make sharp lateral movements on handlers makes him a nice perimeter defender to have on the floor.
Moving forward, I'd actually like to see the Lakers run more screens for Clark. He hits on a decent percentage of his threes (2-of-4 in this one) and would be valuable coming off curls.
Until then, we'll continue to marvel at just how well he performs without anyone truly noticing.
Metta World Peace was busy in this one.
The small forward-turned-stretch 4 did a nice job defensively, coming up with two steals and adequately banging down low when Orlando went big. He did a nice job rotating (Dwight Howard should've been proud) and was a huge reason why the Magic were forced into taking so many threes.
World Peace had it going on the offensive end as well. He put up 14 points on 5-of-12 shooting, connecting on half (2-of-4) of his three-pointers.
Metta was hardly a force on the glass (two rebounds) and did commit some ill-advised fouls, yet he continues to hold his own while playing out of position.
I'm not quite sure how I feel about him taking more shots than the scoring version of Steve Nash, but that's neither here nor there.
Grade: A+ (+++++)
Forgive the extra plus-symbols, but I had to get your attention. Much like Dwight Howard got the attention of the Magic faithful in this one.
The Lakers' behemoth was chided incessantly by fans and former teammates alike, but for the most part, he kept his composure, smiling from ear to ear.
Those highlight-worthy dunks of his probably helped as well.
We keep talking about how much Howard's back continues to impede him, but I'm beginning to think it's no longer an issue. Howard could be found navigating the court with the utmost of ease and flying through the air like he's allowed to wear a cape on the court.
It was a night for remember for Howard as he could be found both jawing with former teammates and dominating those same former teammates in the post.
Howard gave Orlando a bitter taste of what it is missing and what it is also attempting to despise while affording himself the opportunity to prove he made the right decision.
The jury is still out on that last one, but after this much anticipated return, it's safe to say that both sides got the closure they needed.
Antawn Jamison got it going late in this one.
The veteran finished with 10 points on an efficient 5-of-7 shooting and cleaned up on the glass with rebounds as well.
Better than everything else, though, was his competent (not great, competent) display on the defensive side of the ball. He rotated well and contested every shot he could.
Jamison was also a member of that unconventional unit Mike D'Antoni began the fourth quarter with. His defense and ability to slip through screens helped the Lakers blow their lead open.
Although the box score shows a moderate output, Jamison was simply great in this one.
I know, I can hardly believe it either.
Steve Blake shot just 2-of-6 from the field, but he grabbed three rebounds and tied Kobe Bryant with a team-high eight assists, all in just 23 minutes.
I've always been one of Blake's biggest critics, but he did a good job pushing the pace when possible and a few of his pocket passes off the dribble left my head spinning and Orlando's defense woozy.
Blake wasn't the only bench player who shined in this one. Jodie Meeks came up big again as well.
Meeks scored 11 points on 4-of-7 shooting from the field, connecting on 50 percent of his three-pointers. One of those deep balls was Ray Allen-like, I might add. Meeks was falling toward the sideline and drilled a strong side corner three. It was beautiful.
Not unlike his defense.
Meeks has been a source of defensive comfort all season, and he did a nice job keeping the Magic's ball handlers outside of the paint and behind the arc.
Robert Sacre and Darius Morris each accounted for a minute of action, but the real story here was Blake and Meeks.
Should they string together more performances like this one, we might run out of verbal ammunition to criticize the Lakers' bench with.
OK, maybe not. But you get the point.