Howard Rounding Into Form

In L.A.’s 106-97 win against Orlando, Dwight Howard posted a season-high 39 points, to go along with 16 boards and three blocks.

“He looked like Dwight that dominated the league the past few seasons,” Magic center Nikola Vucevic acknowledged postgame.

That much is evident as the three-time Defensive Player of the Year is averaging 24.8 points, 16.3 rebounds, 4.0 blocks and 2.0 steals in the last four games – all Laker wins. He’s also grabbed at least 12 boards in 11 straight games, the second longest streak of his career.

Since the All-Star break, L.A. has won nine of 11 games. In those victories, the purple and gold have posted a defensive efficiency of 99.6, which would rank ninth in the NBA. A key reason for their recent turnaround has been the play of Howard, and Kobe Bryant acknowledged as much.

“A lot of it starts with Dwight – him just buying into what we need him to do and just excelling at it,” he said. “His game just has been absolutely on point.”

Howard also allowed that he’s feeling much better, knowing full well he can impact a game despite not being 100 percent. Still less than a year removed from back surgery, he’s moving increasingly better.

“I’ve been better than I’ve been all season,” he said in late February. “I knew it’d be a process. The better shape I’m in, the more stuff I’m able to do on the floor and be more active.”

In the last week, he’s made his imprint in more ways than one. He keyed the Lakers comeback victory at New Orleans last Wednesday, anchoring a defense that held the Hornets scoreless for the final 6:47. In Sunday’s victory vs. Chicago, he pulled down 21 rebounds.

“(Howard) just dominated the paint with shot blocking, rebounding and physicality,” said Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau, whose team managed just 81 points on 37.1 percent field goals. “That set the tone for the rest of the game.”

Keyed by Howard’s impact on defense, the Lakers now sit in the No. 8 spot at 34-31, a half-game ahead of Utah and just a half-game behind Houston for the No. 7 seed. More than just Howard, though, the team has long recognized that this season would be a process. Steve Nash cited “timing” as a reason why L.A. has started to click.

Bryant is pleased that his teammates, and Howard specifically, have embraced what they need to do to be successful.

“I think we found a rhythm,” Bryant said. “We found our roles. Everything is just kind of fitting together right now. We’re playing exceptional basketball.”