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Signs Vintage Dwight Howard Is Back for LA Lakers

Dan FavaleFeatured ColumnistMarch 11, 2013

Signs Vintage Dwight Howard Is Back for LA Lakers

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    Dwight Howard is back. And for the Los Angeles Lakers, he's finally arrived.

    Los Angeles' Howard experiment has been touch and go all season. His back was visually impeding his mobility, and a torn labrum left him a shell of what he was with the Orlando Magic.

    Until now.

    Per NBA.com, Howard is in the midst of a monster stretch that has seen him average over 20 points, 16 rebounds, four blocks and two steals over the last three game:

    .@dwighthoward's averages over his last 3 games: 20.0pts, 16.3rbs, 4.3blks, 2.3stls w/ a 22.3% REB% & 93.6 DefRtg (@lakers 3-0)

    NBA.com/Stats (@nbastats) March 11, 2013

    Not bad considering Howard was only recently claiming he still had a ways to go before he regained his Superman-like form. If he's doing this and still has even a slight ways to go, the Lakers aren't a team I'd want to face in the first round of the playoffs.

    Speaking of which, the Lakers find themselves within the postseason bubble. Now two games over .500, they hold a half-game lead over the Utah Jazz for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference.

    That is good news for Los Angeles, bad news for the Oklahoma City Thunder and San Antonio Spurs and a testament to how Howard's arduous trek back to form has paid off.

     

    *All stats used in this article were compiled from Basketball-Reference, Synergy Sports and 82Games.com unless otherwise noted.

The Athleticism

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    Sometimes, stats won't tell you everything.

    Dwight Howard's mobility is at a season high. Not only is he running the floor with much more ease, but his dunks have an air of ferocity in them they didn't earlier.

    This isn't to say that Howard hasn't been dunking all season, because he has. But reverses while running off the dribble (aka this one) have been nowhere to be found. 

    That he has the confidence to use all his angles and look for more than just easy put-backs or settle for unnecessary hooks shots that resemble line drives is huge. Gargantuan even.

    Howard isn't known for creating for himself, but he is known for his explosion, his athleticism and his self-assurance. 

    His stats over the past three games are the results his recaptured swagger have yielded.

The Blocks

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    There is no substitute for a Dwight Howard block. Zero, none, zilch.

    Admittedly, his shot-blocking prowess hasn't been a rarity this season. He's averaging 2.4 blocks per game, more than last year (2.1), yet they seemed to lack his trademark lift.

    But not anymore.

    Take Howard's game-saving block on Robin Lopez (which came with five fouls, mind you). Look at the lift he generated on his way up, and just look at how quick he was to the ball. He couldn't do that, wasn't doing that a month ago. Not like this.

    Suddenly, with a spry Howard patrolling the paint, Los Angeles' poor defensive rotations no longer seem as obvious. He's covering up almost everything. And the results have been incredible.

    Howard blocked four shots in the Lakers' most recent win over the Chicago Bulls, the third consecutive game he's sent away at least four attempts.

    For his career, he has only accomplished such a feat seven times, none of which have come as a member of the Lakers. If he can tally at least four against the Orlando Magic, it will be just the third time in his career he's hit that mark in at least four consecutive games.

    Just to put that 93.6 defensive rating of his over the last three games in perspective, he is at 100 for the season, and his career best came during the 2010-11 campaign, when he finished at 94. Vintage Howard, indeed.

    Finally limber on the defensive end, Howard is giving Los Angeles a taste of the three-time Defensive Player of the Year; he's giving the Lakers a taste of who he was in Orlando.

    Which is all Hollywood ever wanted.

His Offense

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    Superman has taken flight once again.

    Last season, Dwight Howard dropped at least 15 points in seven or more consecutive games on three separate occasions. He had a streak that stretched as high as 14 at one point.

    This year, he's matched such a streak only once. On two separate occasions, he's gone five and four straight games without hitting 15 as well, accounting for two of his top 10 longest droughts ever.

    Not only has he eclipsed 15 in each of his last three games, but he's surpassed 20 in two of them.

    Thus far, he has yet to score at least 20 points in more than two consecutive games, and though he totaled just 16 against the Bulls, you get the sense that this streak (dry spell?) is going to end before the season is out.

    Why?

    Because he's attempted at least 12 shots in each of his last three games. Prior to this stretch, he had yet to do that all season.

    It's not just that his teammates are looking for him, but he's being more aggressive. He's actively looking to score off pick-and-rolls, offensive rebounds and even baseline drives.

    So yeah, a heightened sense of awareness is going to break that somewhat depressing 20-point streak of his.

    And it's going to break it soon.

Personable Leadership

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    Say what you will about Dwight Howard as a leadership figure-head or a teammate, but he's finally establishing a rapport with his Los Angeles-based brethren.

    This isn't the same Howard who could be found jawing with Kobe Bryant about defense in the middle of possessions or in between whistles. Instead, this is a Howard who has embraced his role as a constructive leader.

    He's remained composed and personable in directing his teammates. He's trying to help make them better sans the theatrics that come with barking. 

    Watching the "Wired" clip above, it's easy to see they've become more receptive to his advice. Delivery is more than half the battle, and it's one Howard is now winning.

    Just like the Lakers are finally winning.

Presence on the Glass

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    Dwight Howard just couldn't be "back" without increased production on the glass.

    Blocking shots and scoring points are one thing, but he's always been a fierce rebounder, someone who's guaranteed to grab 10 or more a night. 

    He hasn't been that same board-hoarding connoisseur, though. He's grabbing 12.3 rebounds a night, but that's actually his lowest total since the 2006-07 crusade. His 12.6 rebounds per 36 minutes are also the fourth-lowest of his career.

    Berating a rehabilitating Howard for snagging 12-plus boards a night is hardly chivalrous, but we can't just ignore that something was missing. He wasn't rebounding as much or as frequently as we were used to.

    That's all in the recent past now.

    Howard has grabbed at least 10 rebounds in each of his last 10 games, his longest streak of the season. He's also boxed his way out to 15 or more in four of his last five games. Previously, he had brought down 15 or more 15 times the entire season, so this block of glass-crashing is saying something.

    We haven't been able to count on Howard the way we've been able to count on Kobe Bryant for much of the season, but now, we can (once again) count on him to rebound.

    Like it was last season.

The Hugs

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    Dwight Howard is hugging again.

    Not just teammates either. He's hugging everyone. Peers, pundits and Los Angeles Times columnists alike.

    Per T.J. Simers of the aforementioned Los Angeles Times, Howard chased him around the Lakers locker room offering hugs following Los Angeles' victory over Chicago.

    Now, I know what you're thinking: Were there any witnesses?

    I'm not quite sure, but if there were, Kobe Bryant wasn't one of them:

    But three hours after a ho-hum win over Chicago, my guy Howard wants yet another hug.

    He starts chasing me around the locker room, and I would have made a considerable donation to the Lakers' charity of choice had they made Kobe available to witness the whole thing.

    All kidding and hugging aside, this is hardly the Howard we've watched from afar this year. At times, he has been caught with a smile on his face. On other occasions, more than we're used to, he's donned a defiant frown

    That he's hugging (again) is cause for celebration if you're a Lakers fan—or just an advocate of hugs in general. It's not a sign of complacency, but rather of jovial bliss. He's finally coming into his own as a Laker.

    And forget that champagne. He doesn't want to toast to that.

    He wants to hug to it.

     

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