LOS ANGELES — Following a lackluster loss in Denver on Wednesday night, the Lakers showed that when properly motivated — by embarrassment this time — they can play defense. And play it well.
Los Angeles grabbed 52 rebounds and scored 23 fast-break points to beat Portland 104-87 at Staples Center on Friday night. Dwight Howard bounced back from his flagrant 2 ejection and $35,000 fine, scoring 21 points and grabbing 14 rebounds, while Kobe Bryant scored 27 to lead the Lakers to their sixth win in seven games. Bryant saw his streak of 10 straight games with 30 or more points come to an end, but he and each of the starters got some rest, no one playing more than Kobe’s 31 minutes.
The Lakers were excellent defensively, allowing 39 fewer points than they did in the 126-112 loss to the Nuggets.
“This is great,” Howard said, “but we just have to go out there, keep working hard on defense and do it consistently. It’s like I’ve said before, we can’t just be satisfied playing hard one or two games. We need to do it every time we step on the court.”
Steve Nash, who had 10 assists in his fourth game back from a fractured leg, says that having Howard playing at his best is key for the Lakers to be successful.
“He’s a handful for any guy to handle,” he said, “and he’s so good on the pick and roll that it makes things so much easier for us to score. Defensively, when he plays hard it takes a toll on the other team.
“That’s why we got him and that’s why we’re going to lean on him. He’s a one-of-a-kind player.” And a player who sometimes get frustrated and isn’t hesitant to let his coach or teammates see or hear about it.
Howard has called out Mike D’Antoni and his staff for not emphasizing defense enough, and he’s made it clear that he doesn’t like it when he isn’t involved in the offense as much as he thinks he should be.
But following the incident with Kenneth Faried in Denver that cost him a lot of money, Howard said he’ll try to keep his emotions better under control and won’t let his being fouled hard put him in retaliation mode anymore.
“When I let those petty things get to me, it affects everyone and we lose,” Howard said.
Another emotional player is Pau Gasol. But ever since he returned from missing eight games with bad knees, he seems to be taking his role with the team in stride. He’s no longer the featured player down low for the Lakers, but he just goes out and plays — rather than complain — and it’s turning around what had been a poor start to the season.
Despite playing with plantar fasciitis in his right foot, Gasol scored 15 points, grabbed nine boards and blocked three shots in 30 minutes. He also dished off five assists and said he’s continually adjusting to his role in D’Antoni’s offense.
“I’m playing in short spurts,” he said, “and I’ve got to be patient with my game and just be patient overall. I have to play my game, make the good decisions that I make and the rest of it will come.”
1. Every Laker player — make that every NBA player — should grab a DVD of Jamaal Wilkes and watch it intently. They’d see a consistent, no-nonsense, show-up-to-play-every-night basketball player. Everyone always talks about how the Showtime Lakers wouldn’t have won as many titles — if any — without Magic Johnson or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Undoubtedly, this is true. But they also wouldn’t have won without the man they called “Silk” for the smoothness of his overall game. During the Lakers title season of 1979-80, Wilkes averaged an even 20 points per game with 6.4 rebounds, 3.0 assists and 1.6 steals. The Hall of Fame small forward also shot a phenomenal .535 from the field, with most of his shots taken from 17 feet or farther. During his second Laker championship season he was even better, averaging 21.1 ppg, shooting at a .525 clip. He was also a vicious defensive player — some called him dirty — who made life hell for the majority of his opponents. Wilkes had his No. 52 jersey retired by the Lakers on Friday night at halftime, joining fellow Los Angeles stars Jerry West, Elgin Baylor, Wilt Chamberlain, Gail Goodrich, Kareem, Magic and James Worthy on the wall at Staples Center.
2. If D’Antoni has proven anything so far during his Laker tenure, it that he has an enormously thick skin. He’s been criticized by some media, many fans and even his own players, yet he hasn’t seemed the least bit bothered by it. Metta World Peace said that D’Antoni had let the offense turn into the “Kobe Show” until they beat the Sixers in Philly. Asked about it, D’Antoni admitted — without rancor — that MWP had a point and that he’d try to prevent that from happening in the future. When Howard has expressed his displeasure with the coach’s defensive strategy, D’Antoni attributed it to frustration and moved right past it. 3. Add World Peace to the list of candidates in the running for Most Improved Player — formerly known as the “Comeback Player of the Year” award. After two seasons of inconsistency, MWP has come to life after the firing of former coach Mike Brown. He came to camp in tremendous shape, but once D’Antoni took over and set Metta loose, he’s been a solid — and most importantly — consistent contributor on offense and defense. It’s unusual to think of a 13-year veteran as a “Most Improved/Comeback” possibility, but MWP belongs in the conversation.