Plenty of soul searching happened within the past two days for Dwight Howard, and most of it has involved channeling his anger.
And what better way to channel that frustration than dominating in every facet of the Lakers’ 104-87 win Friday over the Portland Trail Blazers? Howard’s 21 points and 14 rebounds sent a clear message that his sluggish play in recent weeks pointed more to effort than eight-month back surgery. Howard’s defensive energy showed he seems genuine in wanting to change his attitude two days after earning an ejection for committing a flagrant foul type 2 against Denver’s Kenneth Faried. Howard’s “edge,” as Kobe Bryant described it, reveals Howard’s awareness that he has plenty to prove.
“It starts with me,” Howard said afterward. “My effort has to be there every night. I can’t allow anything to affect how I play and that’s what I did tonight.”
Howard filled that job description in every way imaginable.
Howard posted nine points and four rebounds in the first quarter by remaining active. He scored off an alley-oop from Steve Nash. Howard converted on a three-point play. He slammed a putback off one of Bryant’s missed shots. Howard performed an up-and-under move against Portland’s Sasha Pavlovic.
The Blazers wanted to play “Hack a Dwight.” No worries. Howard made four consecutive free throws.
Portland believed it could attack the Lakers with J.J. Hickson. Who cares? Howard swatted one of his shots and played a large part in Portland’s center going zero of seven from the field.
“His presence on the defensive end is invaluable,” Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni said. “We have to have it. If we don’t have it, We’ll suffer a little bit.”
The Lakers sure did against Denver, and lots of it traced back to Howard.
He posted only 12 points on 4 of 6 shooting against Denver. Howard and Pau Gasol showed little effort in stopping Faried from posting 21 points on 9 of 12 shooting and 15 rebounds. Howard also earned an ejection for committing a flagrant foul against Faried with 5:02 left in the third quarter.
D’Antoni blamed Howard’s effort on what he called a “perfect storm” of the Lakers playing on the second night on a back-to-back the day after Christmas in the Rocky Mountain altitude. But Bryant saw something more than just that.
“He came out extremely focused,” Bryant said of Howard. “I felt like we played with a bit of an edge to him. That’s what I enjoy to see.”
Still, that doesn’t mean Howard’s solved every issue.
Howard contended after the Denver loss that the team’s inconsistent defense mostly traces toward the Lakers not devoting enough practice time in going over defensive rotations and concepts. D’Antoni laughed off the remark: “When you’re tired and frustrated, things come out.”
But Howard maintained that same stance following Friday’s morning shootaround.
“It’s a lot on effort, but in basketball, you have to have the knowledge of where you need to be on the floor, especially on the defensive end,” Howard said. “If you don’t know where to go, you can play hard but you can be in the wrong spot. That comes from communication and that comes from guys who know where to be in the floor to tell other guys where to go. It takes time for guys to really get it.”
Although the Lakers featured Howard early and often inside, D’Antoni has maintained that the Lakers offense will predicate more on his adage that “the ball finds energy” and less on calling up plays or setting up a certain amount of touches for each player.
Yet, that’s a huge reason why Howard believes he played well against Portland.
“When we attack and have the inside out attack, that’s the best way to play,” Howard said. “The ball starts inside and we’re able to dominate. It keeps teams off balance. If we’re just focusing on threes sometimes, it’s tough to find a balance. Tonight I thought there was a balance between the bigs and the guards. It’s a team effort. We have to play that way every night.”
At least for now, though, Howard showed a performance that serves as a perfect model to replicate in games to come.
Only two days ago, no one on the Lakers would have said such a thing.
Follow L.A. Daily News Lakers beat writer Mark Medina on Twitter. E-mail him at email@example.com