As he walked toward his locker stall, Dwight Howard carried two accessories that summed up his night.
The ice bag remained tightly wrapped around his aggravated right shoulder. Howard followed through on his vow that he wouldn’t let the pain inhibit his aggressiveness in the Lakers’ 102-84 victory Friday over the Utah Jazz by posting 17 points and 13 rebounds.
Howard also held a bag of Skittles. Those symbolized the figurative rainbow Howard wanted to see after fighting through so many thunderstorms this past week.
Granted, this is only one win that reduces the Lakers’ (18-25) deficit to four games behind the Houston Rockets (23-22) for the final playoff spot. But boy did the Lakers provide a blueprint.
“Tonight our effort and energy was there from the beginning,” Howard said. “We just have to sustain it for the rest of the season.”
The Lakers had everything. They featured balanced scoring, with Howard (17), Metta World Peace (17), Steve Nash (15), Pau Gasol (15) and Kobe Bryant (14) each having double figures. They had Bryant the facilitator, finishing with 14 points and only one shy from his career high set in 2002. The Lakers featured plenty of hustle plays, including a 45-30 rebounding edge and holding Jazz to 42 percent shooting.
All of that became possible because Howard set the tone with his effort level.
“He was extremely aggressive and going after every shot,” Bryant gushed afterwards. “On defense, he changed every shot, was going after every rebound and was extremely effective in the passing lanes and on close defense. I thought he played a phenomenal floor game.”
Few would describe Howard’s play that way. In fact, Bryant had plenty of choice words in an air-it-out meeting Wednesday where the Lakers guard confronted Howard about his apparent dissatisfaction about his volume shooting. Following the Lakers’ loss Monday to the Chicago Bulls, Howard instructed to “look at the stat sheet” regarding his five field goal attempts as a reason for the loss.
He vowed a stronger mindset on Wednesday, but an injured shoulder in the Lakers’ loss to Memphis delayed that effort. Howard immediately proved against Utah that the injury wouldn’t detract him from living up to his promise. He described the shoulder as “pretty good” afterwards.
“Dwight just seemed free,” Lakers guard Steve Nash said. “He didn’t seem bogged down about anything but hustling and playing hard and battling. I’m proud of him. He was terrific tonight.”
Howard displayed that in plenty of ways.
He finally converted on pick-and-roll plays with Nash, a staple that should’ve been present all season. Howard constantly rim ran after each possession. Bryant and Howard constantly supported each other by setting each other up and by providing positive body language.
That’s a far cry from how Howard played during the Lakers’ recent losses.
“Those games are over with,” Howard said. “We put the rest of the season behind us and the past behind us. We have to play for each other from here on out.”
That’s why Howard hardly took any bait on several questions pertaining to Bryant.
“If Kobe turns into an assist guy like he was tonight, does that make you even more dangerous?” Time Warner Cable SportsNet’s John Ireland asked?
Howard didn’t budge.
“You’re used to seeing Kobe score 30 points a game. tonight he had 14 assists. is what happened tonight the better way to go?” Ireland restated
“We just want to win,” he said. Howard then added, “We’ve gotten along fr 4 or 5 years. It’s only going to get better.”
Bryant knows why. He challenged Howard.
“The culture of this team right now is a confrontational one,” Bryant said. “That’s what you want. When you’re able to challenge each other, push each other. At the same time, we understand we love each other and care for each other. That’s crucial.”
As a result, Howard clutched the candy wrapper that served as the reward for a job well done and apparently the blueprint into sustaining such an effort.
“More Skittles,” Howard said with a smile. “We have to stay positive.”
Follow L.A. Daily News Lakers beat writer Mark Medina on Twitter. E-mail him at email@example.com