The Los Angeles Lakers have been one of the most polarizing stories of the NBA season. With just 19 games remaining in the regular season, the Lakers are tied with the Utah Jazz for the eighth seed in the Western Conference, and it appears all the turmoil could be dissipating.
|March 10||vs. Chicago Bulls||March 30||at Sacramento Kings|
|March 12||at Orlando Magic||April 2||vs. Dallas Mavericks|
|March 13||at Atlanta Hawks||April 5||vs. Memphis Grizzlies|
|March 15||at Indiana Pacers||April 7||at Los Angeles Clippers|
|March 17||vs. Sacramento Kings||April 9||vs. New Orleans Hornets|
|March 18||at Phoenix Suns||April 10||at Portland Trail Blazers|
|March 22||vs. Washington Wizards||April 12||vs. Golden State Warriors|
|March 25||at Golden State Warriors||April 14||vs. San Antonio Spurs|
|March 27||at Minnesota Timberwolves||April 17||vs. Houston Rockets|
|March 28||at Milwaukee Bucks|
Center Dwight Howard has been the target of most of the negative attention. But with a playoff berth now at the Lakers’ fingertips, Howard is dedicated to helping his team do something special (as quoted by ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne):
I'm a big thinker. So I just stayed in the hotel and thought about the first half of the season and how I could do better for our team. And I just told myself, 'I'm going to commit myself to being better for the second half of the season.'
That may not seem like much, but it’s a step in the right direction, especially after a first half that saw Howard miss time due to a shoulder injury and ultimately play with an ineffectiveness Los Angeles wasn’t expecting when it acquired the league’s premier big man.
Since the All-Star break, Howard is averaging 15.4 points per game—a modest number for the center, but he's done nothing to suggest he can’t be a big asset at the offensive end of the floor the rest of the season.
Where Howard’s re-dedication really shows is in the effort he has been putting into hitting the boards.
Prior to the All-Star break, Howard displayed inconsistent effort as a defender and rebounder, resulting in very pedestrian performances that showed on the floor and the stat sheet. But since February 20, he’s averaging 14.1 rebounds and 2.4 blocks per contest, and he’s yet to post less than double-digit rebounds in that span.
With Howard now hitting his stride and playing with the desire he failed to display in the first half of the season, the Lakers are 7-2 since the All-Star break, with the playoffs not just in reach, but almost a certainty. Barring a major collapse, Los Angeles (32-31) is going to find its way into the playoffs as a very dangerous squad.
In his post-practice interview on Saturday, Howard opened up about a lot of things. He admitted that his play in the first half suffered from his anxiety about missing shots and disappointing Lakers fans (via Shelburne):
Besides just the expectations in games, I mess up and there's somebody in the crowd saying something and I'm ready to snap at them. That's not what we're supposed to do. But you look at a guy like Kobe and he doesn't care about nothing but going out there and playing hard. That's a lesson a lot of us have to learn—especially young guys.
I told him [Bryant]: 'I'm afraid to miss. When I get out there, I don't want to miss, and I end up missing.' And he was like: 'You know what? Shoot 1,000 jump shots a day. You're going to miss a lot of those shots. But that's OK. Because you're teaching yourself it's OK to miss.
Perhaps Howard’s ineffectiveness in the first half was due to his fear of making mistakes or perhaps he just wasn’t motivated enough. Regardless of the rationale, he’s now playing a lot more like the player Los Angeles knew he could be—surrounded by some of the best talent in the NBA.
Howard has been one of the biggest surprises of the season since the All-Star break, and with the big man finally playing at his highest level, the Lakers are poised to push through the final stretch of the regular season in preparation for a playoff run.
Where Howard decides to play next season doesn’t seem as important anymore. The swirling rumors and negativity have died down. Winning has that effect on a team and its players.
Winning is something the Lakers hope to continue doing, and they will as long as Howard continues to play with the intensity he lacked during an abysmal first half of the season.