Dwight Howard Must Continue Hot Streak to Ensure L.A. Lakers' Playoff Berth

Josh BenjaminCorrespondent IMarch 13, 2013

March 10, 2013; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles Lakers center Dwight Howard (12) in action against the Chicago Bulls during the second half at Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports
Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Dwight Howard has been red-hot during the Los Angeles Lakers' four-game winning streak and he needs to keep it up if the team is to stay the course and make the playoffs.

The three-time Defensive Player of the Year is averaging 16.5 points, a league-best 12.4 rebounds and 2.4 blocks per game, but has put up eye-popping numbers in his last four games. Over that stretch, he is averaging 24.8 points, 16.3 rebounds and four blocks per game, not to mention shooting 57 percent from the field.

It's great to see Howard putting up those kinds of numbers for two reasons.

First, the Lakers are finally getting the explosive center they thought they acquired in the blockbuster trade they executed last August.

Second, it's clear that Howard has shown a new commitment to performing well in Mike D'Antoni's up-tempo offense, in which he has struggled all season long and was apparently unhappy (per ESPN) in at one point. Instead of phoning in his pick-and-roll game and dominating the low post every so often, the man appears to have finally found the balance and is working to improve his game in the former area.

With only a few weeks remaining in the regular season, the Lakers need Howard to continue doing what he's been doing without hesitation. Consistency has been an issue all year long for him and now is not the time for him to get cocky over a hot streak and start coasting.

Look at it this way: Howard has averaged 11.2 field-goal attempts per game for his career and 10.4 for this season.

In games during which he takes fewer than 10 attempts from the field (not counting games he has missed due to injury), Los Angeles has gone 8-18. Without him demanding the ball, the team is far weaker and a lot less explosive.

Take those games away from the 34-31 Lakers and the record is a much more respectable 26-13—34-13 if the wins are added back. Thus, it's clear how important Howard is to the team's offensive attack.

But wait, what about the impending return of Pau Gasol? Mark Medina of the Los Angeles Daily News is reporting that the Spanish seven-footer could return to practice as soon as next week and it is unclear whether he will replace Earl Clark in the starting lineup or return to his bench role.

Either way, the last thing that Howard should do is tone down his effort once Gasol returns, as one of the primary reasons the Lakers have gone 11-5 since the man's injury is because Howard has played a bit more aggressively on both sides of the floor.

Through February and March (thus far), Howard has posted 17.2 points, 14.1 boards and 2.4 blocks per game and the Lakers have gone 14-5. Gasol coming back will certainly give him some relief in the paint, but that's anything but an excuse to slow down at this point in the season.

That all being said, it's crystal clear just how important Howard has been during the Lakers' recent hot streak.

With the Western Conference being competitive as it is and the team only in the No. 8 spot, the last thing Howard can afford to do is turn off the afterburners once Gasol returns—or for any reason whatsoever.

The fact is that as many star players as the Lakers have, they're only going to go as far as Dwight Howard takes them. If he can keep up his recent hot streak, then the team's fans should prepare for him to take them far into the postseason.

If not, then it's going to be one long offseason in the City of Angels.