Dwight Howard hunched over in his locker and methodically pulled one sock at a time on to his feet. When the 6-foot-11 center pulled himself up to face the questions he knew were coming from the horde of media surrounding him, the smile that he beamed in the locker room just hours earlier was nowhere to be found.

Howard returned to the Lakers lineup for the first time after a three-game absence, and his performance in a 116-95 thrashing by the Celtics at the Garden last night left the door open for questions: Is he healthy? Is he best served spending more time out of the lineup to mend his physical issues?

Howard fouled out with five minutes left in the fourth quarter. The game was well out of hand by that point, and he exited with nine points and nine rebounds in 28 minutes. He tested out the torn labrum in his right shoulder for the first time in February.

“It was hurting out there a little bit,” Howard said in a hushed tone. “There was a couple times where I felt it, but I just tried not to think about it and just be as strong as I can and not try to nurse it.”

Howard was 4-for-8 from the field, but again struggled from the free throw line with five misses in six attempts. Howard was not his usual menacing factor on the defensive end, as the Celtics pounded the interior for 58 points inside the paint.

“I was hoping to come back (last night) anyway,” said Howard. “That was the plan. I tried to work myself into shape and make sure that my shoulder was going to hold up. It did for the most part.”