In Los Angeles, it still starts with Kobe Bryant. The Lakers are his team, especially as he continues to get his Benjamin Button (as he described) on, leading the NBA in scoring at 30.1 points per game on a career-high 47.8 percent shooting and slowing not even a little bit from recent years.
But for the Lakers to go as far as they want to in 2012-13, things won’t just be determined by Bryant, Steve Nash or Pau Gasol, but by a former three-time Defensive Player of the Year.
Indeed, Dwight Howard’s ability to dominate things on the defensive end, and still punish teams on the other side of the court, could be the whole key to L.A.’s championship aspirations.
“It starts with me,” Howard acknowledged. “My effort has to be there every night; I can’t allow anything to affect how I play and that’s what I did (vs. Portland).”
Against the Blazers on Friday night, Howard was all over the place from the outset, totaling 21 points, 14 boards in 29 minutes. When he wasn’t blocking shots (three), he was affecting then, the central force behind Portland’s 41 percent shooting.
Howard’s effort against Denver on Dec. 26 was nearly as poor as his game against Portland was good, as he totaled 12 points, seven boards and a block in 27 minute before being ejected with a flagrant two foul in the third quarter. He’d played better defensively on Christmas Day vs. the Knicks despite taking only eight shots (14 points, 12 boards), but said it’s going to take him some more time to truly get in peak condition. Howard, of course, had back surgery to conclude his 2011-12 campaign in Orlando and did not play any basketball during the offseason while recovering.
“The key for me is continue to get rest,” Howard offered. “Sometimes those back-to-back games are very tough for me, but I’m just trying to play as hard as I can.”
Despite not being where he knows he can be, Howard is still averaging 17.6 points, 11.8 rebounds and 2.5 blocks on 57.2 percent shooting, all amongst NBA leaders.
The good news for the Lakers is that there are no back-to-backs in the playoffs, and by then, Howard should be in peak shape regardless.
“It does make a difference,” said Nash of Howard’s energy level. “When he plays hard it really takes a toll on the other team for both ends of the floor. He beats them up on the side on both ends. Has a big presence. That’s why we got him. We are going to lean on him. That’s why he’s a one-of a-kind player.”