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Dwight Howard says he’s focused on helping Lakers win, not arguing with Shaq and Kobe

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LOS ANGELES (AP) Dwight Howard says he is returning to the Los Angeles Lakers with a new outlook on basketball and his place in it.

The veteran center hopes the Lakers fans- and a couple of retired Lakers superstars – who learned to loathe the old Dwight over the past six years will give him another chance.

Howard called it “a very big blessing” Wednesday to re-sign with the Lakers , who chose him as the improbable replacement for injured center DeMarcus Cousins.

The 33-year-old Howard spent the eventful 2012-13 season with the Lakers before abruptly leaving as a free agent. After six up-and-down seasons away from LA and a self-described difficult offseason in his personal life, Howard is energized by the chance to team up with LeBron James and Anthony Davis in a familiar jersey.

“Not too often in life do you get second chances,” Howard said on a conference call in his first public comments about the reunion. “This is an awesome experience. I’m just looking forward to being the best teammate, the best person in the community I can be. … Six years ago doesn’t seem like a long time, but a lot of things have happened. I’m just excited.”

Howard said he has repaired his mental state through meditation, reading and introspection. That might be why he didn’t seem to be bothered by the criticism he received online last week from Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal. The Lakers greats had a brief disagreement on social media before they united in publicly making fun of Howard, who clashed with the businesslike Bryant during their season together in LA.

“Shaq and Kobe are some of the greatest players ever to play this game,” Howard said. “I have nothing but love and respect for those guys and what they’ve been able to accomplish. … My job is to come here and help this team win. It’s not to get into any fights or arguments with Shaq or Kobe or anybody. I won’t let anything distract me from winning a championship.”

 

Howard realizes that some Lakers fans may be less excited: He has been booed every time he stepped foot in Staples Center over the past six years – even by Clippers fans. He hopes everyone will recognize he’s ready to repair his relationship with Los Angeles.

“I never had any ill will toward the fans in LA,” Howard said. “I loved this city from the moment I started playing here. … It was just a decision I made. I love this city. I loved playing in LA. None of that stuff even matters to me anymore. I think we all have a fresh start. I’m big on new beginnings, and this is the time to start up a new time. I’m just looking forward to having a fresh start with the fans and show them my only dedication is to put another banner up here in Los Angeles.”

Howard also said he is eager to go back to work after a rough 12 months in his personal life. He hasn’t played a game since November after getting injured early in his only season with Washington, and he didn’t go into detail about off-court problems he has previously described as “rock bottom.”

“It was just stuff in my personal life,” Howard said. “Mentally, physically and spiritually. It had nothing to do with me as a basketball player or anything like that. It was just personal things that I had to deal with which made me stronger.”

Howard wasn’t the Lakers’ first choice to play alongside JaVale McGee and Davis at center, but he won over both big men and team leader Rajon Rondo while trying out for the Lakers’ top brass last month. Howard said he vowed to be a supportive teammate dedicated to team goals, but he realizes public declarations are cheap.

“I’d rather show you guys than say it,” Howard said. “I’d rather my actions be something that you guys can critique instead of my words. I’ve always said a lot of words, but I’d just rather show you guys.”

Watch Zion Williamson score 25, lead Pelicans to crucial win vs. Trail Blazers

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PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — Zion Williamson had 25 points for his seventh straight game with at least 20 points, and the New Orleans Pelicans beat the short-handed Portland Trail Blazers 128-115 on Friday night.

The No. 1 draft pick was playing in just his 11th game after a right knee injury sidelined him for the first half of the season.

The Pelicans, who led by as many as 22 points, have won four of their last five games.

The Blazers, who have lost three straight, were without Damian Lillard, who is expected to miss three or more games because of a groin injury that occurred in Memphis last week. It kept Lillard out of the All-Star Game and the 3-point contest last weekend.

Lillard is averaging a career-high 29.5 points and 7.8 assists per game. His absence hurts the Blazers, who went into the game 3.5 games back of Memphis for eighth in the Western Conference standings.

And it’s not just Lillard: Portland had only nine players available for the game.

CJ McCollum took over as point guard and finished with 27 points and 10 assists. Hassan Whiteside added 19 points and 12 rebounds.

The Pelicans were among four teams, along with the Blazers, fighting for those last playoff berths with just a third of the season left. Coach Alvin Gentry said he’s treating the last 27 games like a college season.

“We want to play to get into a tournament. We want a high seed. Those are the things that we’ve talked about. Obviously, we have to play good basketball,” Gentry said.

The Pelicans also won the previous three meetings this season with Portland. Earlier this month in New Orleans, Williamson had 31 points and nine rebounds in a 138-117 victory over the Blazers.

Williamson, who played just one season at Duke before going pro, went into the game against the Blazers averaging 22.1 points and 7.5 rebounds.

His streak of games with 20-plus points is the longest among NBA rookies this season. And he was the first player since Michael Jordan to have 20 or more in eight of his first 10 NBA games.

Lonzo Ball’s 3-pointer put the Pelicans up 29-17 in the opening quarter. But the Blazers closed within 40-38 early in the second on Whiteside’s dunk. It was as close as Portland could get, and Williamson’s dunk gave New Orleans a 54-46 lead.

Williamson’s layup pushed the Pelicans’ advantage to 65-50 and New Orleans led 73-63 going into halftime. He led all players with 19 points.

Consecutive jumpers from Carmelo Anthony and Whiteside’s dunk pulled Portland within 80-75 in the third quarter. The Pelicans pulled away with a 12-0 run to head to the fourth with 102-83 lead.

Portland closed the gap a bit in the fourth when back-to-back 3-pointers from Trevor Ariza and McCollum got the Blazers within 114-105. Jrue Holiday‘s 3 and Ball’s layup extended New Orleans’ lead again and fans at the Moda Center headed for the exits.

Holiday finished with 20 points and nine assists.

Pascal Siakam scores 37, Raptors remain red hot with win vs. Suns

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TORONTO (AP) — Pascal Siakam had 37 points and 12 rebounds and the Toronto Raptors beat the Phoenix Suns 118-101 on Friday night for their 16th victory in 17 games.

Serge Ibaka scored 16 points, Fred VanVleet and Terence Davis each had 14, Kyle Lowry had 13 points and 10 assists and OG Anunoby aded 12 points for the defending NBA champion Raptors.

After Toronto’s franchise-record 15-game winning streak ended with a loss at Brooklyn in the final game before the All-Star break, the Raptors bounced back by starting the second half with their eighth consecutive home victory.

The Raptors have not lost back-to-back games since an overtime loss at Indiana on Dec. 23 and a home loss to Boston on Christmas Day. Toronto has gone 19-1 since.

Siakam connected on 12 of 19 attempts, going 5 of 9 from 3-point range.

That was just one fewer than the six 3-pointers the Suns managed on 34 attempts. Phoenix shot 17.6%t from long range, its lowest mark of the season. No Suns player made more than one shot from distance.

Devin Booker scored 21 points and Deandre Ayton had 17 points and 10 rebounds for Phoenix. The Suns lost for the seventh time in nine games.

Ayton returned to the starting lineup after missing the final two games before the All-Star break because of a sore left ankle.

Phoenix trailed 93-78 through three quarters, but the Suns cut the gap to six points, 96-90 on a basket by Ayton with 8:08 left to play. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson made a pair from the line, and VanVleet and Siakam both scored to put the Raptors up 102-90 with 6:58 remaining.

Booker missed a 3 with 4:45 left that would have made it a four-point game. Anunoby scored on a dunk and, after another missed 3 by the Suns, Ibaka banked home a 3-pointer to restore Toronto’s 12-point cushion.

Moe Harkless says no buyout with Knicks: “I’ll be here the rest of the year”

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Moe Harkless went from a guy often starting and playing critical minutes for a contender in the Clippers to being the matching salary in a trade and finding himself on the woeful Knicks.

“It is definitely an adjustment with the way things are,” Harkless told Stefan Bondy of the New York Daily News. “Everything is different, the culture and everything.”

If there was a player nobody would blame for wanting a buyout and the chance to get back to a team playing for something, it would be Harkless.

That’s not happening. Multiple reports have surfaced that he is not talking buyout with New York running up to the March 1 deadline. The latest comes from Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports.

Then Harkless was even more direct speaking to Bondy.

“I’ll be here the rest of the year,” he said.

Harkless has fans in NBA front offices, with the Lakers rumored to be among them (although they are about to land Markieff Morris in a similar role). Harkless could play good defensive minutes on the wing down the stretch for a team, buying rest for key guys, plus in the playoffs he could be advantageous in certain matchups.

Morris and the Knicks have time to change their minds, but it sounds like he will play out the season in New York then be a free agent next summer.

Lakers reportedly will waive DeMarcus Cousins to clear roster spot

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If the Lakers are going to add Markieff Morrisas has been rumored — or anyone else via free agency, they are going to need to clear out a roster spot.

That has the Lakers looking to waive DeMarcus Cousins, a report broken by Adrian Wojnarowski and Ramona Shelburne of ESPN.

Cousins signed with the Lakers over the summer but never set foot on the court with them after tearing his ACL during summer workouts (which led to a scramble and L.A.’s fortuitous signing of Dwight Howard). He was around the team and rehabbing, and while they would never officially rule him out, Cousins was never expected to play.

He was not waived before because his $3.5 million salary might have been useful in a trade. When that didn’t materialize at the deadline it, became likely he could get waived.

It’s highly unlikely a team picks up Cousins this season, while he continues to rehab from his injury. However, it might be a good roll of the dice this summer by a team to sign him to a minimum contract for next season. Cousins still has some NBA basketball in him, if he can just stay healthy.