Dwight Howard Finally Becoming Dominant Center LA Lakers Need Down Stretch

Josh BenjaminCorrespondent IMarch 13, 2013

February 8, 2013; Charlotte, NC, USA; Los Angeles Lakers center Dwight Howard (12) smiles during a time out during the game against the Charlotte Bobcats at Time Warner Cable Arena. Lakers won 100-93. Mandatory Credit: Sam Sharpe-USA TODAY Sports

At long last, Dwight Howard is becoming the dominant presence in the middle that the Los Angeles Lakers thought they were getting following last summer's blockbuster trade.

In the team's game against the Orlando Magic on March 12, the three-time Defensive Player of the Year scored 39 points and pulled down 16 rebounds while also having three blocked shots. He also managed to tie the NBA record for most free-throw attempts in a game with an eye-popping 39, of which he sank 25.

Howard is averaging 16.5 points, a league-best 12.4 rebounds and 2.4 blocks per game this season, which is not exactly what we've come to expect from him since he debuted in 2004. For his career, he has averaged 18.3 points, 12.9 rebounds and 2.2 blocks. When the Lakers acquired him last August, this is the player they thought they were getting.

But the man has constantly struggled to find consistency in head coach Mike D'Antoni's up-tempo offense. Instead of regularly working the low post like he is used to doing, he is being asked to be more of a pick-and-roll big man. This is well out of his comfort zone, and Howard has struggled accordingly.

Look at it this way. As good as Howard was against Orlando, there have been some Lakers games this year where he has been a non-factor on offense, and that does not help the team at all. In Los Angeles' win against Dallas on Feb. 24, he had just nine points and shot 2-of-7 from the field.

In a loss to the Chicago Bulls on Jan. 21, Howard took just five shots.

However, Howard has been a different player during the Lakers' current four-game winning streak. Over that stretch, he is averaging 24.8 points, 16.3 rebounds and four blocks per game.

It's taken until March for it to happen, but it appears that Howard has finally bought into D'Antoni's offense and is doing his absolute best to be the center his team needs him to be down the stretch. He's demanding the ball, fighting for every rebound and just being an absolute monster on defense.

It's thus no surprise that the Lakers have gone from being a team almost destined to miss the playoffs to the No. 8 squad in the Western Conference, and there's plenty of room for them to charge further ahead. The No. 7 Houston Rockets are only half a game ahead, while the No. 6 Golden State Warriors are just two ahead.

Both teams should definitely be worried now that the regular season is winding down. Dwight Howard has become the center the Lakers need him to be, and that's only going to make them better and keep them moving forward during the season's final weeks.