Will L.A. Lakers Postseason Success Impact Dwight Howard's Free-Agency Decision?
No one would have been surprised if the Lakers had folded in their final two games without Bryant, but instead, they seemed to gain strength from their adversity. And rather than ending the year as the Western Conference's No. 8 seed, they actually overtook the Houston Rockets to finish seventh.
The Lakers' victory over Houston on the final day of the regular season pushed them into a more favorable first-round pairing with the San Antonio Spurs to go along with the confidence and momentum that comes with finishing the season with five straight wins.
But what happens next?
Even though the Lakers avoided a first-round matchup with the Oklahoma City Thunder, they will still be heavy underdogs against the Spurs, and there are few people outside of Los Angeles predicting a Lakers upset.
However, the Lakers did finish out the second half of the regular season with one more win and one fewer loss than the Spurs, and it doesn't hurt that one of the Lakers' victories in their final five games came against the Spurs.
That doesn't mean much when it comes to the NBA's second season, but I wouldn't pencil the Spurs into the second round just yet, especially if Dwight Howard has anything to say about it.
In a twist of irony, Bryant's injury may have been the best thing to happen to Howard all season, because it has forced him to assume the leadership role that is usually reserved for Bryant.
The irony doesn't end there. Because while losing Kobe may have boosted Howard's confidence, it may also end up helping the Lakers by providing a glimpse of what the future may hold for a Dwight-led franchise.
So far, so good.
While Howard struggled through back and shoulder injuries, many people seemed to forget that he was once the most dominant inside presence to enter the league since Shaquille O'Neal, and also, that Howard was the same guy who led the Orlando Magic to the 2009 NBA Finals.
And more importantly, Howard seems to be enjoying himself again.
Instead of being crushed by the pressure of leading the Lakers into the playoffs, Howard is embracing the moment and possibly setting the stage for his return to Los Angeles next season, especially if the Lakers can be competitive or even win their series against San Antonio.
It certainly won't be easy, but the Lakers are finally playing the inside-out type of game that Howard envisioned, and the focus on running the offense through him has also energized him on the defensive end.
The Lakers held the NBA's highest scoring team and the West's second-highest scoring team, Houston and San Antonio, respectively, to a combined average of 93 points and 39 percent shooting while playing a style that is suited for the postseason.
The only way the Lakers can be successful in the playoffs is by slowing down the pace of the game with deliberate offense and punishing defense. And that's where the best interior tandem left standing comes in.
In the season's final five games, forward Pau Gasol averaged 19 points, 13 rebounds and shot 50.6 percent from the field, and two of those performances included triple-double output.
During the same span, Howard averaged 21.8 points, 11.6 rebounds and shot nearly 65 percent from the field.
Those are pretty gaudy statistics, but if Gasol and Howard can sustain those type of numbers, then the Lakers can compete against anyone.
Howard has proved that he can lead the Lakers to multiple victories against playoff teams to end the regular season, and now he gets the opportunity to prove he can do the same thing when the games really count.
Howard has given no indication of what he plans to do after the Lakers' season is officially over, but if the final few games of the regular season are any clue, Howard seems to have found his place Los Angeles.
Most signs point to Howard re-signing with Los Angeles anyway, since no other team can give him as much money, exposure or the type of history the Lakers provide. But a first-round victory over the Spurs would likely seal the deal.
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