DENVER — The images of Dwight Howard bulldozing defenders and intimidating drivers in the lane has quickly vanished in favor of the Lakers’ center showing agitation.
He winces when a defender blows by him. If he doesn’t receive enough help defense, Howard usually directs his frustration at a teammate. When opposing teams run the pick-and-roll with ease, Howard often throws up his hands in frustration.
Plenty of such sequences happened in the Lakers’ 126-114 loss Wednesday to the Denver Nuggets at Pepsi Arena. But there was one particular play that stood out the most.
When Nuggets center JaVale McGee drove down the lane for an uncontested dunk in the first quarter, Howard and Lakers guard Steve Nash openly jawed at each other over the missed assignment.
“I think every single guard and big goes through a pick-and-roll could squabble over it every time the other team scores,” Nash said. “I think that’s more just frustration because neither of us wanted him to score. That kind of stuff should happen. You should be [mad] when the other team scores. That’s healthy.”
It’s debatable whether it’s healthy Howard continued assigning blame to Nash and not himself afterwards.
“He was just explaining what happened, what he thought happened. Everybody makes mistakes,” Howard said. “He just went for the steal and mistimed it, and McGee went behind him and dunked the ball.”
The on-court tension surely contrasted the fun-loving demeanor Howard and Nash displayed for a Sports Illustrated cover shoot during training camp and a joint interview they shot below for NBA TV.
Howard also jawed at Kobe Bryant three weeks ago in the Lakers’ win Dec. 5 at New Orleans over the Lakers guard constantly playing the centerfield position and rarely helping on defense. Bryant argued back. But at least in that game, it marked a moment of growth. Bryant and Howard soon made amends. Bryant committed more on defense. The Lakers soon featured Howard more inside.
That didn’t happen against Denver.
Howard ended an all around disappointing 15-point effort on 4-of-6 shooting and seven rebounds by committing a flagrant foul type 2 on Nuggets forward Kenneth Faried with 5:02 remaining. Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni hardly lamented whether Howard’s absence hurt the Lakers.
“Not a whole lot,” D’Antoni said. “I don’t think he had a good game. A lot of people didn’t have a good game.”
That mostly applied to the Lakers’ defense. They allowed a season-high 126 points. They were outrebounded, 48-38 and conceded 25 second-chance points. Even though Howard proved a huge reason for the Lakers’ defensive lapses, he continued in what’s become almost a game-by-game diatribe on how the team doesn’t commit enough on defense.
“Guys got to be in the right spots and they have to be taught it and it has to be something that you practice on so guys can understand,” Howard said. “They have to go through it. You just can’t talk about defense or talk about where to go. You actually have to show guys where to go.”
That didn’t happen against Denver, leading their prized offseason acquisitions bickering over the issue.
Follow L.A. Daily News Lakers beat writer Mark Medina on Twitter. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org