Dwight Howard finally finding himself

LOS ANGELES -- Dwight Howard committed a cardinal sin against the unofficial professional sports code of conduct Sunday by unabashedly looking past his opponent in the Chicago Bulls.

Howard was at his locker room before the Bulls game with his iPad mini in his hand showing a group of reporters a parody video that the Orlando Sentinel put together set to Cee-Lo Green's "Forget You."

"I pity the foooooooool that's a fan of you," sang a computer animated Jameer Nelson.

Howard laughed at the lyrics, the same way he laughs at the Internet memes saved on his phone. (His favorite? One called "Howard be like," which shows a Photoshopped image of him holding an oversized brick instead of a basketball at the free-throw line.)

By looking past the Bulls, Howard was both looking forward to Tuesday's game when he'll play in Orlando for the first time as an opponent and back at his eight years with the Magic -- the only NBA team he had ever known before joining the Los Angeles Lakers.

Not only has his skin grown thicker from the first three quarters of a tumultuous season in L.A., but Howard has grown stronger.

"I just think I'm in better shape," Howard said after racking up 16 points, 21 rebounds and 4 blocks in a dominating 90-81 win against Chicago. It was Howard's 10th straight game with 12 or more rebounds as he bolstered his post All-Star break averages to 15.5 points, 14.8 rebounds and 2.6 blocks as L.A. has gone 8-2.

Howard was talking about physical shape, as he's now starting to be able to make the second-effort plays on defense and run the floor all game on offense the way he did in his pre-back surgery days in Orlando.

But he's in mental shape now too.

"I'm happy I'm in a better place now than I was at the beginning of the season," Howard said.

The Lakers are in a much better place too, two games over .500 for the first time all season and back in the playoff picture by vaulting past the Utah Jazz to secure a half-game lead as they hold the eighth seed with 18 games left to play.

The Lakers aren't world-beaters yet, but with Howard starting to look like the guy who was a three-time defensive player of the year in Orlando, and L.A. starting to look like a team that warrants a $100 million payroll and championship aspirations, the trip back to his old stomping grounds couldn't come at a better time.

"I think this is a great time," Howard said. "I knew that earlier in the season was going to be tough, but now we're playing a lot better."

The "we" in that quote was referring to the Lakers as a whole, but the main thrust behind the improvement has been him coalescing with Kobe Bryant.

"This is a good time for me to learn certain things on the court just from watching him play," Howard said. "So, I don't take it as anything bad that I'm not 'the guy' right now.

"I had some of the wine, the vino and it's actually helping me out too," said Howard, acknowledging Bryant's 19 points, 9 assists and 7 rebounds against the Bulls, appreciating that Bryant has purposely tried to get him going on offense.

If you were watching Sunday's game, in the third quarter you would have seen Howard setting screens to free up Bryant and Jodie Meeks for open 3-pointers on consecutive possessions to break the game open and Howard running back down the court celebrating as if he launched the shots himself.

"That's how Dwight is," Meeks said. "He's unselfish. He doesn't care about scoring a lot of points or anything like that. He just wants to help out, do the little things."

Howard has been characterized by some as the exact opposite of unselfish for most of the season in L.A., but it's evident he has been able to make a change for the better.

As Howard has given a little, so has Bryant, to the point that when the Lakers march into Orlando and Howard has to hear it from his former fans who will have far more harsh words for him than the jokes from the Cee-Lo parody, Bryant will be right in the foxhole there with him.

"Emotional? Man, I'll talk to him," said Bryant, who wants Howard to approach it the same way he looked at the 2001 NBA Finals against his hometown of Philadelphia. "Just go out there and bust their ass, man, and show them what they're missing."

As the Lakers' roller-coaster season has unfolded, what has been missing from Howard's game -- from both the physical and mental side -- has seemingly returned.

"All I have to do is go out there, put a smile on my face, have fun and play basketball," Howard said.

For the first time in a while, Howard sounded like the happy-go-lucky guy who had all that success in Orlando. And he sounded like somebody with bigger things in mind than just a reunion next week.

"We have a great shot [to win the championship]," Howard said. "We believe in ourselves, we believe in our team."

Or, as Bryant put it: "Save the emotional s--- for when you retire."