Dwight Howard sets defensive tone in Lakers win over Minnesota

The ball didn’t find his way inside, but Dwight Howard still found his way to the ball.

He constantly chirped as the Lakers set their defensive rotations. Howard fronted the passing lanes to cause deflections. Howard lived up to his pledge that he’ll anchor the defense by blocking four shots.

The Lakers’ 116-94 win Thursday over the Minnesota Timberwolves simply reflected everything they envisioned Howard providing defensively ever since joining the team.

“He’s playing extremely well for us on both ends of the floor,” Lakers guard Kobe Bryant said. “Even on nights where they’re crowding him defensively and he can’t really get his offensive game going he’s still being extremely productive for us.”

Make no mistake, Howard should’ve posted more than 11 points on six field goal attempts. As coach Mike D’Antoni conceded, “I wish we could get him the ball a little better.”

But with Bryant’s prolific play (33 points on 13 of 22 shooting) and the team’s marksmanship (16 of 32 from 3-point range, Howard’s lack of looks offensively became a non-issue. Meanwhile, Howard channeled his energy elsewhere.

“We were talking and were very active,” Howard said. “We understood what we needed to get accomplished tonight, especially on the defensive end.”

That started with Howard.

His 13 rebounds played a large part in the Lakers outrebounding the Timberwolves, 49-35. Howard’s rim running largely explained why Steve Blake found him for two open dunks. Howard’s four blocks all sparked transition buckets. With that, the Lakers rotated better on Howard’s defenders anytime he set out to make those momentum-changing deflections and blocks.

“They have to understand that I’m going to try to block shots,” Howard said. “I keep telling them I’ll go block shots and go to help and just crack back to my man. Most of these guys aren’t used to having a guy try to block a lot of shots, going to contest shots and keep telling them. I’m going to block a shot, it doesn’t matter if I miss it or not. I have to go and try to protect the paint. Guys are getting better at it. But it’s all communication.”

Howard has often communicated all season. But sometimes it fell on deaf ears. Sometimes he spoke with frustration over a missed assignment.

This time, his teammates seem to be listening.

“Everybody is in the right spots,” Howard said. “There’s still some things we have to work on with the rotations and the pick and roll help. Guys just have to talk. That’s the biggest thing.”

There’s also another big thing.

Howard’s backed up his words with stronger play because of his increased explosiveness and timing. All of that reflected the challenges he faced in catching up on his conditioning after having 10-month back surgery. That’s helped Howard lead with both his actions and words.

“It’s getting better,” Howard said. “I keep going and pushing myself and playing as hard as I can.”

Even if he’s not being featured enough offensively.

Follow L.A. Daily News Lakers beat writer Mark Medina on Twitter. E-mail him at mark.medina@dailynews.com

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