Dwight Howard is a crucial component of the Lakers' playoff recipe.
There are three keys for the Los Angeles Lakers heading into the postseason—the key to the house, the key to the car and the key to the city.
A thrilling overtime win over the Houston Rockets allowed the Lakers to clinch the seventh seed in the postseason, setting up an imminent date with Greg Popovich's San Antonio Spurs. The win on the final day of the season also boosted the Lakers out of a certain matchup with the Oklahoma City Thunder, an admittedly more difficult task.
Back to the three keys. Without any one of the three, the Lakers are not up for the ride they so desire entering the postseason.
Allow me to explain.
Key to the House
In order for L.A. to have any success, it will need to be right at home in the painted area. Hence the key to the house. Establishing two of the top five NBA big men—Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol—will be the primary focal point on the offensive and defensive ends of the floor.
Dwight has looked stronger as the season has progressed and can make his presence felt most by being a long, shot-altering center underneath his own basket. Fortunately for the Lakers, Howard's talent and athleticism at his position can compensate some for the defense's lack of athleticism at the guard position.
In a battle with the San Antonio Spurs' Tim Duncan just two games ago, Dwight fared well and played with high intensity.
Howard's strength is his calling card, and he needs to be a bully near the rim, just as he was against Duncan.
Pau's length is not to be ignored either. The seven-foot Spanish center is one of the NBA's most adept scorers for his size. He has the unique ability to pass with touch and finish both at the rim and from the floor. However, Pau's best use may be facilitating the offensive flow of the game from as close to the cup as he can get.
Check out Pau's court vision on a find to Howard back when the two were still just getting acquainted in November.
His ability to find Howard and deliver an accurate feed—especially after an offensive rebound and ensuing defensive scramble—makes Gasol an option that coach Mike D'Antoni must consistently utilize.
The Lakers and all their size need to dominate the rebounding numbers, especially locking up defensive boards after stops. While a bench presence like Jordan Hill would have greatly benefitted the starting tandem, the duo can still compete for boards with any frontcourt in the league.
Key to the Car
Further, Coach D'Antoni needs to get his men energetic and encourage a fast pace early and throughout. Dealt a serious blow by the injury to L.A. icon Kobe Bryant, this Lakers team will need to fill a serious energy void. His crunch-time presence and focus will be sorely missed, especially late in games.
The guard situation—being completely interchangeable that is—will at least allow Coach D'Antoni to employ fresh legs over 48-minute stretches as well as over the course of a full series. Teammates like Steve Blake, Jodie Meeks and even Darius Morris will have to pick up much of Steve Nash's slack, who has not played in a game since the end of March.
At least Blake seems to have a grasp on the mentality it will take moving forward.
Blake played a large role in keeping the Lakers close to Houston in the first half despite poor starts from Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard.
Initially, Nash was expected to the be the key decision-maker squaring up against opposing guards. His absence as the top facilitator definitely hurts L.A. on the offensive end, but his defense is more than replaceable. Without him, maybe the Lakers will be able to press more on opposing guards and keep them out of rhythm.
Most importantly, Dwight could encourage the team by upping his activity in defending the rim as well as getting out and running the floor well after a defensive rebound. If he can properly take the wheel of on-court leadership, Howard could be igniting the start of a playoff surge.
Kobe is excited.
Playoff promise fulfilled #ontothenext— Kobe Bryant (@kobebryant) April 18, 2013
Key to the City
Lastly, the Lakers need the key to the city, but not their own. An injury-plagued regular season amidst too strong of a Western Conference left the Lakers in a low-seeded position. If advancing to the Conference semi's is part of the plan, Purple and Gold will have to win on someone else's parquet.
During the regular season, traveling was not one of the gang's fortes. The Lakers stumbled to a 16-25 record away from the Staples Center, only 10-16 at Western Conference opponents.
Can the Kobe-less Lakers put together a run of any substance?
However, since a very rocky start to the year that saw the Lakers lose only five of the first 21 away games, the team has taken 11 of the last 20 to close out the season. That average, 55 percent, is all the Lakers will need to do to continue to proceed on their postseason course.
Coaching and discipline will have the most to do with the Lakers' ability to win on the road in the coming weeks.
Does Mike D'Antoni have what it takes to lead his team through late-season drama and the new challenges that lie ahead?