Despite all the talk about his rough season — whether you attribute that to his back and shoulder injuries or his mental attitude (or, a combo of the two) — Dwight Howard has put up good numbers: 16.2 points a game on 57.7 percent shooting plus 12.1 rebounds a game.
In his last 10 games those offensive numbers are off slightly (15.7 points on 56.5 percent) but his overall game has looked better as he has decided to own the defensive end of the floor. He is grabbing 21.4 percent of the available rebounds when on the floor and 11.7 percent of the Lakers missed shots. He has been a defensive force in the paint and that has been key to things like the Lakers 25-point comeback against the Hornets.
Howard said he has had a new mental attitude since the All-Star break, something he emphasized speaking to Ramona Shelburne of ESPNLosAngeles.com.
“I’m a big thinker,” Howard said during a wide-ranging, candid interview after the Los Angeles Lakers practiced Saturday afternoon. “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.’ “
The changes included improving his conditioning (partially through a better diet). And he said he needed to get back to being the player he had been in terms of style the past few years and try to take on more of Kobe Bryant’s mental attitude about the game.
But part of it was adjusting to the expectations of being the star center of the Los Angeles Lakers. In Los Angeles, the Lakers are THE sports story — they dominate the newspapers and sports talk radio. The Clippers have been the better team and you’re lucky to hear people discuss them on the radio; they are always the second story in newscasts.
Being a star for the Lakers is like being the quarterback for the Cowboys or the No. 3 hitter for the New York Yankees — there is pressure and scrutiny that is above and beyond other roles in the same sport. Howard thought he had seen pressure as the anchor of the Magic franchise taking them to the finals, but it’s just not the same thing.
Howard wasn’t ready for it, and combine that with him struggling to be himself through injury and you have a pressure Howard admits he wasn’t used to.
“Besides just the expectations,” he said. “In games, I mess up and there’s somebody in the crowd saying something and I’m ready to snap at ’em. That’s not what we’re supposed to do.
“But you look at a guy like Kobe and he doesn’t care about nothing but going out there and playing hard. That’s a lesson a lot of us have to learn — especially young guys.”
Kobe doesn’t fear the expectations. Look at the numbers and you see he misses a lot of shots at the end of close games — more than he makes — but he is never afraid to take the next one, and that is part of what makes him dangerous in the clutch.
Howard needs that attitude, and we’re starting to see it from him.
The Lakers are winning if not overwhelming — those were impressive late-game wins recently but it was against the Hornets and Raptors — and for them to start to reach their expectations it’s going to take the Howard of old.