I guess it's true, a happy Dwight Howard is a dominant Dwight Howard. Fresh off of his statement, "Negativity is just not good," Howard turned in his finest performance in a Lakers uniform against the Utah Jazz on Friday night, a performance that may serve as a stepping stone in turning this disastrous season around.
It wasn't just the 17 points, 13 rebounds, one assist, two steals, two blocks, and just one turnover, throw all of that out. Those are just numbers. It was the effort. It was the athleticism. It was the willingness to accept a role. It wasn't demanding post-ups on the box. It wasn't saying, "Look at the stat sheet."
It was altering shots on the defensive end time and again. It was rotating from the weak side to the strong side to poke away entry passes, or to trap a man, or to help a beat teammate. It was fronting a beast like Al Jefferson, and then working to get inside position once the shot went up in order to secure the rebound. It was holding Jefferson to 12 points on 5-14 shooting and just seven rebounds. It was setting hard picks and rolling to the basket with authority. It was skying over the defense to throw down alley oop slams. It was accepting a defensive first mentality, and understanding that the scoring will come if he just does the little things and plays hard.
Case in point, Howard scored 17 points on 8-12 shooting, while shooting 1-3 from the line. Six of Howard's eight made shots were spoon-fed at the rim, with four monster alley oop dunks, and two layups due to drop offs. His two other baskets featured a putback following an offensive rebound, and a traditional post up shot from seven feet. This should be a typical Howard game. Instead of traditional post ups that lead to strips in the lane, and intentional fouls that yield missed free throws, Howard can have a tremendous impact simply by utilizing his athleticism and rolling hard to the rim. Doing so will either lead to slam dunks, catch and kicks, or collapsing defensive shells that will open up open three-point opportunities for his teammates. Abandoning post ups altogether isn't necessary, but utilizing Howard's greatest advantage, athleticism, will surely lead to success.
Speaking of three-pointers, the Lakers shot 9-21 (42.9%) from deep. With Kobe Bryant adopting the role of point guard and initiating pick and rolls all game long, the Jazz defense was forced to contend with Bryant getting to his sweet spots at the elbow, Howard rolling to the rim, and shooters on the opposite wing and corner. Other than Howard, who made four buckets on assists from Bryant, the biggest benefactor from Bryant initiating the offense was Metta World Peace. World Peace sank 5-11 three-pointers on the night, with most of them coming wide open in the corner following a Bryant pick and roll. In fact, four of World Peace's makes from deep were assisted by Bryant. Bryant also assisted Chris Duhon for a three, giving Bryant a direct hand in five of the nine makes from downtown.
Taking the load off of Steve Nash, and presenting more of a scoring threat with the ball in his hands, Bryant turned in a spectacular game with 14 points on 7-10 shooting (no attempts from deep) to go along with his nine rebounds, 14 assists, three steals, one block, and just three turnovers. With Bryant assuming a playmaker identity and opening the game with four assists in the opening five minutes, including two alley oop lobs to Howard for monster slams, the Jazz had no answer. If they didn't hedge, Bryant would turn the corner as a scoring threat with options in the lane. If they did hedge, Bryant would find Howard on the roll or Pau Gasol on the slip. If they trapped, Bryant would swing the ball to Nash or World Peace for a three at the wing or corner.
At one point in the third quarter, Bryant dished out an assist on four consecutive possessions — a three for Duhon, two threes for World Peace, and a layup for Jodie Meeks. Essentially, Bryant was unstoppable running the pick and roll, and it may become a staple in this offense for select stretches throughout the rest of the season. With teams fearing to leave Nash, a career 42.8% shooter from deep, Bryant will have plenty of room to operate while assessing numerous options. Dropping 14 dimes, Bryant finished one short of tying his career high — 15 back in '02 when he dropped a triple-double all over Michael Jordan and the Washington Wizards.
With Bryant turning in his most unselfish game of the season, it's clear that he wants to make sure that the Lakers as a whole get rolling. Amid team meetings and the blame game, Bryant understands that he can't carry the Lakers all by himself. In turn, five Lakers scored in the range of 14-17 points against the Jazz. Howard and World Peace led the way with 17 apiece, Nash and Gasol turned in 15, and Bryant scored 14. Fourth on the team with just 10 shots, Bryant took what the defense gave him and shared the basketball. An offensive balance of this nature is surely difficult to defend, and it fosters a sense of unity both offensively and defensively.
Contributing to the success on the offensive end of the floor seemed to spurn the defensive efforts of certain Lakers (cough, cough, Howard). Case in point, the Jazz, winners of eight of their last ten games heading into the game, shot just 34-81 (42%) from the field, and just 3-14 (21.4%) from deep en route to just 84 points (14 points below their season average). With Howard's energy, athleticism, and protection in the paint, the guards were able to hound the ball handler with the understanding that Howard had their back. Pressure, rotations, and overall effort were considerably greater against the Jazz.
Furthermore, the Jazz didn't burn the Lakers with a "poison pill" quarter. With outputs of 19, 18, 26, and 21 in each quarter, the Jazz didn't pour in 30 or more points in a single quarter like so many teams have done against the Lakers this season. With this win, the Lakers snapped an abysmal four game losing streak, and the D'Antoni era Lakers are now 5-16 in poison pill games, and 8-4 in non-poison pill games.
With 39 games remaining in the season, the Lakers sit in 11th place in the Western Conference with an 18-25 record, five games behind the Jazz, and four behind the Houston Rockets for the seventh and eight seed. One can only hope that stringing together a streak of non-poison pill games along with strong team play will surely get the Lakers back on track for the playoffs. A .667 win percentage is a hell of a lot better than .238 (8-4 vs 5-16). Likely needing to reach at least 45 wins for a possible playoff berth, a 27-12 record to close the season will require a .692 win percentage. If the Lakers keep up the defensive intensity, and continue to play balanced basketball, maybe reaching 45 wins won't be as impossible as it looked just a couple days ago.
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