Dwight Howard spent much of his media time in Houston over All-Star weekend deflecting questions about his future. If he can play out the remainder of the season the way he performed on Wednesday, the answers will speak for themselves.
Howard was active from the very start, and helped set the tone for his team as the Lakers led wire to wire in their 113-99 win over the Celtics.
It was an emotional night in Los Angeles, as the team honored owner Jerry Buss, who passed away at the age of 80 on Monday, with a video tribute and a speech to the crowd before tip-off from Kobe Bryant. The Lakers came out strong in the first quarter as a result, and Howard’s play was the catalyst for the effort that extended through to the final buzzer.
The criticism with Howard’s play to this point of the season can be partially blamed on injury. He began the season not fully recovered from back surgery, and then has played through the pain of a torn labrum in his right shoulder, while missing time due to the injury in two separate stretches.
But there’s also been an effort and body language issue which has been even more troublesome, and on display far more often than the team would like to see, especially given the franchise’s long-term vision that has Howard firmly in the picture.
Neither the injury nor a lack of effort was present in this one, as Howard went to work early, and looked every bit as dominant as we’ve seen him be in the past. Offensively, he was constantly working to establish good position inside, while setting solid screens for Steve Nash out top instead of slipping them too soon as he’s done the majority of the season.
Howard finished with a team-high 24 points and 12 rebounds on 10-13 shooting, and he helped get Nash going by clearing space with those screens. Nash finished with 14 points and seven assists on 6-7 shooting, and with his fifth assist of the night passed Magic Johnson to move into fourth place all-time in that category.
Howard and Nash played together in this one, and gave us a glimpse of exactly what the Lakers envisioned was possible when assembling this team over the summer. It’s only one game, of course, but the possibilities are exciting when you see the two play in this way, even for small stretches.
This game was never in doubt for the Lakers — the team led by as many as 14 in the first half, 19 in the third quarter, and 22 in the fourth, with Boston getting no closer than 12 points at any time in the final 12 minutes.
It was an off night offensively for Kobe Bryant, who finished with 16 points on just 5-15 shooting. But he, like the rest of the team played with a high level of energy, and matched Nash with seven assists. Earl Clark continued to produce inside, and hauled down a career-high 16 rebounds.
The Lakers had a lot going for them in this game in terms of motivation. They were waxed by the Celtics just two weeks ago, so there was some payback in order. There’s the increased desperation in place to make a run to the postseason now that the All-Star break is behind us. And of course, there was the emotion behind playing the team’s first game since the passing of its legendary owner.
It wasn’t a surprise that the Lakers were able to come out and play harder than a Celtics team known for effort above all else on this night. The play of Howard might have been, however, and if he can find a way to consistently perform at that level for the team’s remaining games, there won’t be any lingering questions about his future, or of who will be the star to anchor the Lakers franchise in the years to come.