Dwight Howard always remained a towering presence. But he appears bigger. Howard always vocalized the need to play as a team both on offense and defense. But his words sound clearer. Howard always wanted to lead this Lakers team. But now it appears others are finally following him.
As the Lakers’ first-round series Sunday against the San Antonio Spurs, there’s plenty of signs within the past week that he’s embracing the responsibility in leading this team with Kobe Bryant staying on the sidelines with a season-ending torn left Achilles tendon. Howard immediately addressed the team about the need to rally together. Howard backed those words up with two double doubles performances. Howard became one of the first to visit Bryant at his Newport Beach residence. Howard also organized a team dinner Friday night.
That shows Lakers forward Metta World Peace that “Dwight has something to prove.”
“Over the years, it’s been Kobe and LeBron [James]. There’s [Dwyane] Wade, [Kevin] Durant, even though he has yet to have a ring,” World Peace said. “Dwight being a center, great centers always win. So I know Dwight has something to prove. I think with the hard work he’s putting in, especially with LeBron being in the NBA, Dwight has to get on that level. He’s so motivated and it’s a dream playing with him. He’s really relaxed right now. He’s ready to go.”
So much that when World Peace’s words were relayed back to Howard, he hardly sounded fazed about the large expectations.
“I just want to win,” Howard said. “Plain and simple. A lot of people are counting us out and doubting our team. But I just want to win. I’m going to do what I can to help this team win. It’s not about me having 30 points a night. But me dominating the game. That’s what I want to do.”
Howard didn’t always have that mindset this season.
Mostly he couldn’t because of physical issues that hurt his fatigue, timing and conditioning, including a surgically repaired back and a torn labrum in his right shoulder. Partly Howard couldn’t because he mentally struggled handling heightened media scrutiny, the lack of help he received on defense and a relatively reduced offensive role than his eight seasons in Orlando. Howard averaged 17.1 points and 12.4 rebounds, his lowest numbers since the 2006-07 season.
Through eight games in April, though, Howard has averaged 20.88 points points per game. In the past two games without Bryant, Howard has also averaged 21 points. But his success doesn’t rely strictly in his numbers. For example, Howard’s rebounding numbers in April actually dropped to 10.5 per game.
Instead, Howard’s success relies on his increased activity.
“Dwight has been a big presence,” Lakers guard Steve Nash said. “He’s playing hard and taking on a leadership role in the defensive end. He makes it really difficult for people in there. He allows us to stick to our game plan. On the perimeter, you can take a little bit more liberties to put them n a positon where the ball will funnel to him. That’s going to be the key to our defense.”
And the key to the Lakers’ success will hinge on Howard keeping his leadership qualities strong. He has a lot to prove.
“With all the adversity we’ve been through from the beginning of the season, when we started losing, people were making statements by saying we’re not together and we’re not a team,” Howard said. “We got closer and got away from the TV that separates us. The first thing about coming together is the one thing that could separate a team is the outside noise. We just made sure to stay away from that stuff. There were people in our ear telling us this guy said that, or this guy said that. We stayed away from that so we could stay close.”
And Howard stayed away from that so he could lead. He has teammates ready to follow.
Follow L.A. Daily News Lakers beat writer Mark Medina on Twitter. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org