Tonight, the Los Angeles Lakers will likely play in an environment more uniquely hostile than any they have ever experienced. How they react will dictate the game.
The first time something, anything, happens, nobody can have any idea what to expect. You can have predictions based on sound reasoning, but in the exact moment when theory becomes either reality or falsehood, one can never be sure that the predictions won't be massively, monumentally wrong. The first time a nuclear bomb was detonated, it was acknowledged as an extremely remote (nearly impossible, but not actually impossible) possibility that the device would cause the atmosphere to ignite and incinerate the entire planet. Luckily for us, they predicted correctly that it wouldn't.
What the Los Angeles Lakers will experience tonight will not be that unique, but it will be an experience that most of them have never come close to. With Dwight Howard returning to Orlando to face the team he spurned and alienated with immature actions, the Lakers will play tonight's game in an environment far more hostile than normal, and only two members of the team can bring any kind of relevant experience to the fold: Kobe Bryant has been the target of similar hostility; in 2004, while facing allegations of rape, Bryant dealt with league-wide hostility which reached a fever pitch in road contests in Denver (near the town of Vail, Colorado, where the incident which led to the allegations took place). And Antawn Jamison may not have been the target of 20,000 frenzied fans in the most apt comparison to tonight's contest, when LeBron James first returned to Cleveland, but he was in the building. He saw first-hand the results when a modern day superstar returns to the place that worshiped him in different colors.
If the Lakers are smart, they can look to that night in Cleveland in the hopes of duplicating what Miami accomplished, in more ways than just waltzing to an easy victory. Prior to that game, the Miami Heat's first season was not going particularly well. They were just 11-8 and looking pretty rough around the edges in dealing with a surprising level of hostility around the league. So what happened when a team struggling with being the villains came to the place where the hostility reached a crescendo? They finally embraced their roles and beat the crap out of the poor, pesky Cavaliers. That win was Miami's third in a row. They would go on to win nine more before they lost, and after that loss, they won another nine more, a 21-1 stretch that cemented the Heat as every bit as good as everybody expected them to be.
The 2013 Lakers are not the 2011 Heat. The Lakers struggles have been far greater than anything Miami experienced, and their obstacles far more severe. Miami was just a team that needed 20 games to work out some of the kinks of how to excel together. The Lakers still haven't had that chance, as injuries to nearly all of their principal players have prevented the establishment of any kind of rhythm (even now, the rhythm the Lakers have established will be interrupted when Pau Gasol returns). The Heat's "struggles" involved 17 games of .500 ball. The Lakers struggles involved spending more than half the season far below the .500 line. The Lakers have far more glaring weaknesses than Miami ever did, and those weaknesses have been exacerbated by injuries and franchise turmoil that Miami never had to deal with.
This game is also not like that game. LeBron's return to Cleveland happened early in the season, just 17 games in, and it allowed Miami to gain momentum for their dominant run. The Lakers, meanwhile, are already deep into their best stretch of play on the season, and just need to keep things going with a win against a team that should be over-matched. That night in 2010 was the first time LeBron faced his old teammates on the season, but the Lakers and Magic have already met, a game the Lakers quite shockingly lost with an effort that might be the season's most deplorable. And Dwight Howard is not LeBron James, mostly due to the fact that he's not even really Dwight Howard right now.
What is the same, or close to the same, is the extent to which the love that Orlando fans felt for Dwight Howard has now turned to hate. The hostility in the arena tonight will be off the charts, something that most NBA players, Dwight especially, have never experienced. The history of Dwight Howard's career to date, including how he has handled his business (or, mostly, failed to do so) indicates that he will not react well to this situation. The brief history of the 2013 Lakers would have indicated the same a few weeks ago, but the Lakers have made quite a meal of staring adversity in the face in recent times. Herein, we find the most important possible parallel between tonight's game and LeBron's return to Cleveland. Coming in to that game, the Miami Heat were visibly affected by their treatment as the villain league-wide. Coming out of that game, they still had some things to figure out, but how to turn the hostility into fuel wasn't one of those things.
Coming into tonight, Dwight Howard has struggled (until very recently) with the pressure of playing in Los Angeles. His entire career, especially the last two years, has been a constant reminder that he desperately wants people to like him, that he hasn't yet figured out that he can't please everybody and his efforts to do so will only succeed in alienating everybody. Tonight, he will be given a clear indication that his actions have caused a group of people who worshiped him to now hate him with just as much passion. There are two ways he can respond: Will he curl up into a ball and try to hide from it all? Or will he embrace it, and turn their hatred into his fuel.
The hopes of Lakers Nation, both for this season and beyond, rest firmly in the balance. If Dwight Howard can have the same kind of transformative experience that his predecessor did, those hopes might not be so foolish after all.