T.J. SIMERS

Welcoming Lakers and Dwight Howard to eighth place, with open arms

The Lakers and fun-loving center Dwight Howard have climbed into the West's last playoff spot. That means hugs all around, even for Page 2.

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Dwight Howard is hugging me in the Lakers' locker room before Sunday's game.

I know I've become close with the team, but what does it say when a Laker wants to hug me more than the wife does?

Now I could understand the hug maybe a month or so ago with no one seemingly liking the guy and Howard left alone with only his smile and Page 2 as a supporter.

But three hours after a ho-hum win over Chicago, my guy Howard wants yet another hug.

He starts chasing me around the locker room, and I would have made a considerable donation to the Lakers' charity of choice had they made Kobe available to witness the whole thing.

But what can I say? Athletes just seem to gravitate toward me; maybe Howard is hearing the joy in my heart.

The Lakers are the No. 8 seed!

The Lakers are the No. 8 seed!

The Lakers are the No. 8 seed!

Glory be, keep the bums coming on the schedule and the Lakers might end up ruling the NBA world, especially with the way my boyfriend is playing.

He's just killing it. Twenty-one rebounds against the Bulls and now 62 career games with 20 or more. Another 600 or 700 more games like this one and he'll catch Wilt.

Throw in 16 points, ask the questions, and yes, his legs still aren't right, his shoulder is still torn, and he will have more to offer when really healthy.

And yet he's now dominating games.

Hard for the critics to make the case that Howard doesn't belong in a Lakers uniform. But then what were they thinking in the first place, the Lakers possessing the best center in the game and they were supposed to just get rid of him?

I suspect some of the hard cases will never get past the fact he's not Kobe. But a funny, funny scene before Sunday's game.

As Kobe came onto the court all serious for pregame introductions, Howard approached him wearing the Kobe face that everyone saw in the closing seconds Friday night against Toronto.

It was as good a sign as any that Howard is feeling more comfortable here, and too bad for the Bulls.

But what about those who wanted Howard traded? How many gave up on Howard, or thought he had given up on the Lakers?

How many tried to pound him into submission, dwelling on his smile as if it keeps him from getting rebounds?

"I can't help who I am," Howard says, but he shut down earlier this season when the criticism became too much.

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