So the moment has come.
The moment when Dwight Howard becomes the most vocal player with the Lakers. The moment when the offense centers more on him. The moment when he no longer has to sacrifice parts of his game. The moment when Dwight Howard can finally become Dwight Howard.
It remains to be seen how the Lakers can play long-term without Kobe Bryant after suffering a season-ending left torn Achilles’ tendon that required surgery. But in the Lakers’ 91-86 win Sunday over the San Antonio Spurs, Howard provided a great blueprint on how the Lakers can at least absorb Bryant’s absence in the short term.
It was pretty simple. Howard just dominated.
He dominated with 26 points on 9 of 15 shooting, 17 rebounds and three blocks. He dominated by still encouraging his teammates to pass the ball to others besides him. He dominated by immediately embracing this challenge.
“It’s a great opportunity for me to lead this team,” Howard said. “I feel confident in myself and the guys are confident in me. I’m willing to do the best I can every single night.”
That became the crux of Howard’s message when he addressed his teammates following Saturday’s practice. So much emotion and sorrow surrounding Bryant’s injury affected the team enough that they remained somber after the Lakers’ win Friday over Golden State. But that immediately evaporated the next day.
Instead, Howard stressed how the team still boasts an enviable roster, what with two elite post players (himself, Pau Gasol), one elite defender (Metta World Peace) and one elite point guard (Steve Nash). As flawed as this team might be in a first-round matchup with the Oklahoma City Thunder, the Lakers aren’t exactly scrubs. So he reiterated that no one should act like they are.
“Despite whatever happened this season, we have a chance to win the next game, make the playoffs and make history,” Howard said. “Me being tthe leader in the team, I believe we can win. Now we’ll go out and play like it.”
The Lakers sure did.
On a night when they only shot 36.5 percent from the field, the Lakers compensated for hustling after every loose ball. On a night when Gasol shot only 3 of 17, Howard and Gasol made up for it by outrebounding the Spurs, 58-46. On a night that featured a deeper rotation, the Lakers encouraged everyone to take shots.
Plenty of the Lakers’ mindset stemmed from Howard’s approach.
“I have to go out there, play my game and have fun and not let anything affect me as a player,” Howard said. “It’s not about scoring 50 points or 20 rebounds every night. It’s about going out with the same effort and showing the guys we’ll hard from the beginning to the end.”
Howard has preached such platitudes, but the Lakers remained inconsistent in executing them.
Some of that stemmed from the Lakers’ dicey health, including Howard’s surgically repaired back, Nash’s broken left left leg and Gasol’s various ailments. Some of that stemmed from uncomfortable roles changes to Gasol (facilitator), Howard (secondary offensive option), Nash (off-ball shooter), Bryant (facilitator). And some of that stemmed from a healthy dose of egos.
“Everybody wanted to be an alpha dog and everybody wanted the ball,” Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni said. “We had to get through that and we got through it pretty well. It took a while, obviously, but they’re ready to go.”
As Howard mused about learning how to adjust to playing with Bryant, “it took 80 games.”
Yet, Howard admitted it took a while to lead because he still had plenty to learn from Bryant on how to become one.
“Kobe is a different type of player,” Howard said. Sitting back and watching how Kobe handled things the whole year was great to watch. He stayed composed through different situations on the floor. He’s done a great job of that and not allow other teams to see the frustration. He’s good at it and that’s one thing that will help me grow as a player. It’s not letting little things affect me and not showing it to the point where my teammates are not focused on the game.”
Howard demonstrated that perfectly against San Antonio with his own style.
“I watched Kobe all year and watched what he did with this team,” Howard said. “He’s not one of the guys who will be in the locker room and be vocal. He’s just going to do everything on the court. That’s where he shows his leadership with how hard he plays and how hard he trains. Other guys are the vocal guys. Btu I believe I can do both. I’ve been trying to do that the whole year. With Kobe out, I understand I have to do more with this team. It’s a good opportunity for me. I believe I can do it.”
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Follow L.A. Daily News Lakers beat writer Mark Medina on Twitter. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org