For once, the brightest spotlight regarding the Los Angeles Lakers wasn’t turned to Kobe Bryant but to another player, as the return to Orlando for the first time since getting traded (by request) for Dwight Howard stole the show, also because he was clearly the best player on the court.
And as good as Kobe Bryant has been recently, the key to success, or future success for the Lakers, whether it’s this season in making the postseason and advancing in it, and whether it’s the franchise’s future, Dwight Howard is it.
He scored 39 points and added 16 rebounds as the Magic completely failed with their hack-a-Dwight strategy, sending Howard to an NBA record 39 times to the line (tying his own), and Howard actually did pretty well, making 25 of them. Yes, Howard, who is a 49% free throw shooters this season, which might have cost the Lakers a win here and there, made 64% of his free throw attempts. The Lakers won 106-97.
But it wasn’t just the line that gave Howard such a big reason to smile about. He was finally very efficient playing as the screener in pick n roll plays, averaging 1.25 per possession and was in that role nearly twice as frequently as he had been entering the game. He made all of his field goals (7-13) that way, taking all of his shots from within 5 feet of the basket.
And the Magic’s inability to keep the Lakers out of the paint was another problem. The Lakers shot 76.2% (16-of-21) from inside 5 feet Tuesday, tied for their fifth-best percentage from that distance this season.
I wasn’t nervous tonight. I was looking forward to playing here. It was a hostile environment, but I think that was something that was good for me. For my progress as a player, I think I needed that tonight.
A lot was made of his return and banter with Jameer Nelson and other Magic players heading into the game. Howard just seems to want to turn away from the drama that ravaged the Lakers during their lowest points of the season, instead focusing on simply winning and improving.
Everybody’s always going to say certain things in order to start certain situations. But Jameer’s my brother. We came in together, and I have no bad feelings toward him. I think it was something I needed, to come back and I think it was something that the city needed, too. It’s closure. We can all move on. We had eight great years. People are going to feel the way they feel. I totally understand that.
The rest of the Lakers simply stood by and watched. Kobe Bryant had one of his quietest nights in recent memory, scoring only 11 points on 4-14 from the field. He also added 8 assists, as the Lakers kept doing the same thing – going to Howard in the paint, and usually getting at least two points from it, as both Nikola Vucevic and Tobias Harris couldn’t really handle the best center in the NBA.
Steve Nash continued his evolution into a shooting guard, at least on offense, as Kobe Bryant and Steve Blake were the ones to handle the ball and set up the shots for Howard. Nash finished with 5-9 from the field, scoring 11 points. Blake added 8 assists, as the Lakers once again grabbed the 8th spot in the West, 0.5 a game over Utah.