LOS ANGELES – If the Lakers were on a direct path to negativity, as center Dwight Howard so aptly described it earlier in the day, they took an interesting detour Friday night at Staples Center.
They communicated on the court. They shared the ball. They played defense. Oh, and they even figured out how to win a game.
It really happened. Everything that has been going wrong, including a reported heated exchange among players this week in Memphis, was set aside during a resounding 102-84 victory over the Utah Jazz.
Sustaining the good feelings is another story, but it’s possible the Lakers may have found a launching pad to something good. Only time will tell.
“If we can stay there and keep playing hard and keep being together, then we should be able to crawl out of this hole,” coach Mike D’Antoni said. “But it’s a big hole.”
A crater is more like it. The win ended the Lakers’ four-game losing streak, but they’re still seven games under .500 and four games out of the final playoff spot in the Western Conference. One victory isn’t going to turn around their season, but Friday’s game showed them how they can win by playing cohesively.
One way: distributing the ball and giving opposing defenses more to worry about than just Kobe Bryant.
Bryant matched his season low with 14 points but had a season-high 14 assists. Steve Nash and Pau Gasol had 15 points apiece, Howard and Metta World Peace 17 each. Bryant missed a triple-double by one rebound.
“We played hard,” Bryant said. “We played smart. The energy was there, the execution was there.”
As for his assist total, which was just one off his career high set in 2002, Bryant said: “I just tried to manipulate the defense as much as I can and tried to forced the game upon our guys and have them play with confidence. They did a great job making shots.”
One effect was to engage Howard early in the game. The Lakers center, who complained after the team’s shoot-around about negativity surrounding the team, was active in the low post from the first few moments, scoring six of his team’s first nine points, including two dunks off alley-oop passes from Bryant.
A more energized Howard also played well on defense, finishing with 13 rebounds and two blocked shots. The Lakers shot 53.8 percent for the game and held the Jazz to 42 percent.
“I thought he was just extremely aggressive,” Bryant said of Howard. “He was going after every shot on defense, tried to change every shot, (went) after every rebound. He was extremely active in the passing lanes and his post defense. I thought he played a phenomenal floor game.”
Howard insisted that any ill feelings that were expressed during a closed-door team meeting in Memphis were left behind. If that’s true, it can only be interpreted as a positive step forward for a team that has been going backward.
“Tonight our effort and our energy were there from the beginning,” Howard said. “We just have to sustain it for the rest of the season.
“We have to play together. We have to play for each other. That’s the only way we’re going to win.”
It surely won’t be easy. The Lakers face the conference-leading Oklahoma City Thunder on Sunday at Staples, and anything less than another solid effort could push them back from where they came.
They know it, too.
“When we hit turbulence somewhere along the road, we just can’t bail out,” D’Antoni said. “We’ve got to keep going through it. It’s not going to be smooth all the time, but that’s when we’ve got to come together.”