Lakers win big in Howard's return
LOS ANGELES — After Friday night’s 116-101 loss to Oklahoma City, a frustrated Mike D’Antoni threw down the gauntlet to his team.
“The season begins for us Sunday night,” said the beleaguered head coach. “It’s time for us to plant our feet and make a stand. We can’t wait any longer.”
And for one of the few times this season on Sunday, the Lakers responded to their head coach in a positive way.
After missing three games, Dwight Howard returned powerfully from a shoulder injury to score 22 points and grab 14 rebounds as the Lakers (16-21) pummeled the Cleveland Cavaliers 113-93. The win ended a six-game losing streak and gave LA its first victory in 2013.
“It was great to have Dwight back out there,” said Kobe Bryant, who led the Lakers with 23 points. “He looked good. I was pleased with the way he was running and with his activity. He performed well.”
With Howard back, the Laker defense had one of its best games of the season, limiting the 9-30 Cavaliers to 41-percent shooting from the field and coming up with 11 steals, more than three above its average. Howard’s size and quickness add a different dimension to the defense and allows the other players to take chances, knowing he’ll be there to cover for them.
“My shoulder felt pretty good tonight,” Howard said. “With the little bit of shape I’m in, I wanted to do what I could to stay aggressive. And as a team we played good on both ends of the floor. We had to start getting some wins, and hopefully we started it tonight.”
Howard said the turnaround on defense was a result of players making it a priority to play hard and communicate for the entire game, not just a few minutes.
“We talked. Everybody was in the right spots,” Howard said. “We forced them to take tough shots and as a team our defense was great. It was good to play like that.”
It was another solid game for swingman Earl Clark, slowly becoming the Lakers feel-good story of the year.
The 25-year old from Louisville — who appeared in just nine of the Lakers’ first 32 games this season — played 36 minutes in place of Pau Gasol and came up just one rebound short of his third consecutive double-double. Clark scored 13 points, had pulled in nine rebounds and had a game-high three blocks. Much like Howard, Clark’s length and quickness can help the defense when a teammate gambles and sees his man get past him. Clark or Howard should be waiting, and if the ball isn’t being rejected, the shot most likely will be altered.
“On the defensive end we helped each other,” said Clark, who will replace the injured Jordan Hill in the rotation. “We got Dwight back, which always helps with the rebounding and (giving us) that presence down the middle.
“Because of my size and quickness, I’m able to do a lot of things on defense, especially help out when it’s needed.”
Howard, who played with Clark in Orlando, gave the Earl of Laker his stamp of approval.
“I love Earl,” Dwight said. “He’s a great guy and he works really hard. I happy to see him do so well.”
It was a great effort for the entire team, not something that can be used as a description of many games this season. But Kobe pointed out that the effort has to be sustained and the Lakers can’t go back to being the lackadaisical squad they’ve been all year. It was nice to end the losing streak “but it’s Cleveland, you know what I mean?” Bryant said with a laugh.
1 — It’s absolutely laughable to me when I hear people say that Howard is “soft.” Everyone has bad games, and most players don’t live up to fans’ and media expectations. But if someone truly believes that Howard isn’t tough, well, they’re wrong. He had major spinal surgery last April, with his doctors telling him not to expect to be back playing until December — late December — at the earliest. By the time training camp opened he was doing basketball workouts and he made it onto the court for the opener on Oct. 30 against Dallas. The back is still not at full strength, yet he never uses it as an excuse for a subpar performance. Nine days ago he suffered a partially torn labrum in his shoulder, played a game, then was told by team medical personnel to shut it down for at least a week, probably longer. Within a few days he was back doing conditioning drills; Saturday saw him working on his defense at practice and Sunday night he was cleared to play. Soft? Just the opposite. He’s one of the toughest, most determined men I’ve ever covered.
2 — On the air Sunday with Fox Sports Radio’s Ben Maller and Tomm Looney, I was asked if I thought Jim Buss was getting a bad rap for his moves as VP of Basketball Operations. I said yes he is, and I truly believe it. Had things gone according to plan and injuries hadn’t decimated the roster for a while, this would be a very good team on the way to possibly being a title contender. And the people would be talking about what a great summer it was for the Lakers front office. When Steve Nash fractured his leg, it changed the entire fabric of this Laker team. But now Buss and GM Mitch Kupchak need to step up again and make a move or two that will put this team back on track, with an eye on next season as well, when Kobe, Gasol and Nash will be a year older. And free agent Howard may decide to leave.
3 — Something must be wrong. It’s been a few days since Magic Johnson Twitter-smashed the Lakers.