LOS ANGELES — It’s only two games, but there’s something markedly different about the Lakers.
They look like a good basketball team.
Behind Dwight Howard’s 31 points and 16 rebounds and Kobe Bryant’s 31 on 12-of-19 shooting, the Lakers beat the Milwaukee Bucks 104-88 on Tuesday. They’ve now won two straight after dropping six in a row, and have improved their record to 17-21, three games out of the final playoff spot in the Western Conference.
Normally at this point in the season, a pair of wins would be no reason for celebration. However, it was the way the Lakers won that may make them a turning point in what was quickly becoming a lost campaign.
While scoring their usual 100-plus points, Mike D’Antoni’s team beat both Milwaukee and Cleveland by playing excellent defense for prolonged stretches. For most of the season, they’ve been unable to string together five minutes of good defense, and the result is a sub-.500 record and 11th place in the West.
“We’ve had a lot of tough times during the season so far,” Bryant said, “and right now we’ve begun to play together as a team — especially on defense. It’s a lot of defensive energy and us playing for each other. Lately we’ve done a good job of hunkering down out there. That’s really the big key.”
That and the improved play and return to health by Howard, who looks like he’s very close to full strength following April back surgery and a shoulder injury this month.
The Lakers center has been dominant on both ends of the floor, moving and getting open for high-percentage shots — he was 14 of 18 Tuesday night — while controlling the boards with 30 rebounds in the past two wins. He looks more like the pre-back surgery Howard than at any other time this season, and if he continues that progression, the Lakers could quickly turn around what had been shaping up to be a disastrous 2013.
“I definitely feel a lot better,” Howard said. “I just have to continue to play hard. My legs are starting to come back a little and I’m in better shape, but also (my teammates) are starting to find me in the right spots. So I just have to continue to play with energy, and we have to all believe we can turn this thing around.”
Bryant said he was happy with the way Howard has been able to shake off the criticism leveled at him after a bad game and just keep working on his health and his overall play.
“Extremely pleased,” Bryant said. “He hasn’t concerned himself with the criticism; what people might say about his play or his injury. He’s just going out there and making us a better ballclub on both ends of the floor.”
For the second game in a row, most of the Lakers showed heart and desire on both ends of the floor; but, it’s just two games against weaker teams. That won’t be the case Thursday night when the defending champion Miami Heat show up at Staples Center. No, the Heat haven’t been playing well, dropping six of their past 10, but they are the champs and it will be a measuring-stick game for the suddenly resurgent Lakers.
“Definitely,” Bryant said. “We have to prepare hard and go out there with the same type of effort we’ve been showing, especially on defense.”
1. I guess all those who wrote off Bryant because of his age (34) and the basketball mileage on his body aren’t feeling too good about their prediction. Once again leading the NBA in scoring at almost 30 ppg., Bryant really is living that “Benjamin Button thing” as he refers to it, especially on defense lately. After a series of defensive ups and downs, D’Antoni is putting Bryant on the other team’s point guard more and more, and the results have been great. On Sunday night Bryant helped hold ultra-quick Kyrie Irving to 15 points and seven assists on 7-of-15 shooting. In the Cavs’ 100-94 win over the Lakers on Dec. 12, Irving broke down the defense for 28 points and 11 assists. Against the Bucks, Bryant put the brakes to Brandon Jennings, who shot just 4 for 14 with 12 points and one assist. He also helped slow Monta Ellis, who went 6 for 16. What must make this all so rewarding for Bryant is that people were saying he was starting to lose it defensively, using time on “D” to rest for his offensive game. Yet when he’s put on the other team’s fastest player, he still finds ways to shine. Amazing isn’t descriptive enough for Bryant’s play.
2. Beno Udrih doesn’t look like a point guard, but I’ll take him on my team anytime. He seems to be one of those players who always find a way to do something good. His four best years were in Sacramento, where the native of Yugoslavia averaged 12.6 points and just under five assists. He struggled in his first year with the Bucks, but has rebounded in 2012-13 with 7.9 points per game while shooting 52.1 percent. If Steve Blake doesn’t return from his abdominal surgery, Mitch Kupchak should talk to Milwaukee about acquiring the 30-year old Udrih.
3. LeBron James said there’s no comparison between the Heat forming their “Super Team” and the Lakers doing it this season. James says it was much tougher on the Heat because of all the pressure they had put on them by fans and media alike. I say LeBron doesn’t know what he’s talking about. The pressure on the Lakers is much greater because of the success of the franchise and the expectation of a fan base used to winning it all. The Lakers have handled it better than the Heat, though. No reports of any crying in the locker room after a bad loss like the Heat once did.
Although they did sniffle their way to the Finals before losing to Dallas that year.