Everything happens for a reason, right? You'd have a hard time convincing Kobe Bryant, Dwight Howard and the rest of the weary, but still breathing, Los Angeles Lakers, who have tripped, tumbled and stumbled through an extremely turbulent NBA season.
Bryant's late-game injury against Golden State Friday night unfortunately felt like the proverbial nail in the coffin for a team that's been snake bit all year. Bryant most likely is done for the season and L.A.'s slim playoff hopes have suddenly become that much worse.
Dwight Howard, Pau Gasol, Steve Blake, Metta World Peace, Jodie Meeks, Earl Clark and Antawn Jamison watched their fallen captain slowly limp to the Lakers' locker room with three minutes to play and somehow found a way to beat the Warriors without him, 118-116.
With two games left in the regular season and no wiggle room to spare, Howard and the Lakers are on course to sneak in to the NBA postseason as the eighth seed in the Western Conference. But now they must do it without fifth leading scorer in the NBA history.
In spite of the obvious stress and strain the team has endured as it claws its way into the playoffs, there is a silver lining from which Howard can learn and grow from. The big center came to Los Angeles to win championships, so experiencing a bevy of bumps and bruises along the way can only benefit him as he seeks to regain his Superman status on the court.
Initially, Howard got the benefit of the doubt because he's still recovering from major back surgery that obviously stunted his abilities early in the season. A torn labrum didn't help either. Add to that a fast-break, run-and-gun coach who inherited a half-court team and you have the makings of a basketball disaster waiting to happen.
Howard has complained more than once about not getting enough touches, about how the team needs to spread out the offense, help out on defense and work together like one big, sort-of-happy family. It was rather obvious that Howard was often irritated by the big/little brother relationship he appears to have with Kobe Bryant.
The Orlando Sentinel stopped just short of calling Howard an immature baby who destroyed the Orlando Magic franchise (haven't we heard that before). Well, actually they did and more than once. Prior to their game in Orlando last month, columnist George Diaz wrote:
Howard has taken heat in Orlando and Los Angeles, where media and critical fans continually blasted him for not hustling down the court, not scoring enough points, not clogging the middle well enough on defense and not leaping over tall buildings in a single bound.
That's not to say some of the criticism wasn't warranted.
Aside from adapting to a foreign offense and working through three coaches and various injuries, Dwight Howard has had to endure the mental aspect of being on a team of All-Stars that weren't winning and looked in danger of not even making the playoffs. They still may not make the postseason.
Howard appears sincere when he says that he has learned a lot this year and it has made him stronger and better as a player, both on and off the court.
Then there were those four days in Houston during the All-Star break, when Howard had an opportunity to think and reflect, something he admits to doing frequently. I'm a big thinker," Howard told ESPN.com's Ramona Shelburne in an interview last month. "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.'"
Since the break, Howard has been much better, averaging 18 points in March and 19.4 this month. In his last four games, he's put in 25, 19, 20 and 28 points. He even made 14 free throws against the Warriors in a game where every point mattered.
Howard told L.A. Times reporter Mike Bresnahan several days ago that he was confident the Lakers would make the playoffs and make a lot of noise when they do. This, of course, came before Bryant's major injury on Friday.
"If we get into the playoffs, there's no doubt in my mind and in any of our minds, that we can win a championship. It would be stupid of me to sit here and say to you [media] guys that if we make it to the playoffs, we'll be out in the first round. I have confidence in our team."
One wonders how Dwight Howard is looking at the playoff picture today, knowing that their captain and leading scorer, Kobe Bryant, is most probably through for the year (via ESPN).
In a very sad, bittersweet way, this latest Lakers' setback will, in the long run, serve as another test in the ever-evolving development of Dwight Howard as player and team leader.
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