The end result of it all: The Los Angeles Lakers are winning again.
Statistically, nothing has changed. The Lake Show is producing at the same rate both offensively and defensively, but has seen a significant improvement in its late-game execution. The Lakers have raised the bar in the final stages of contests. That has given them an opportunity to bounce back and close out games, despite facing some big fourth-quarter deficits.
Kobe Bryant has been nothing short of superb in the clutch. He’s orchestrated some masterful scoring opportunities to close out contests. His magnificent outbursts have almost completely overshadowed Dwight Howard.
The three-time Defensive Player of the Year has turned a porous Laker defense into one of the league’s best in crunch time. He is making his rotations much more quickly and has become a huge impediment for opposing offenses.
In the second half of the season, Howard has done a better job of picking up ball-handlers coming down the lane and intimidating them enough to force them into passing the ball.
Howard has also been more mindful of staying on the ground when perimeter players drive the ball to the hoop. The Laker center is providing support by helping out his beaten teammates and then recovering back to his man.
On the rare occasions that teams have tested Howard, he’s either changed shots or erased them outright.
The big man has looked healthier and, dare I say, happier in the process. And he can thank Bryant for it.
It would be unfair to say that Howard wasn’t enthused about his and the team’s success earlier in the season. But in the same breath, it seems clear that he wants it more now.
The temperamental big man shared with USA Today’s Sam Amick the details that led to his turnaround:
I’ve got to change my whole diet, for one. It's not like I was eating super bad, but I just want to do whatever I can to speed up this recovery process. People don't know how tough it is being a world-class athlete, being on top, to having back surgery and you have to lay on your back for six months.
Howard had to completely cut out sugar from his day-to-day foods in an effort to accelerate the timetable for a full recuperation.
A conversation with the Lakers’ leading scorer helped him regain his focus and concentrate on doing what he’s always wanted: playing basketball. He shared the details of this interaction with ESPN.com’s Ramona Shelburne:
I told him [Bryant]: 'I'm afraid to miss. When I get out there, I don't want to miss, and I end up missing.' And he was like: 'You know what? Shoot 1,000 jumpshots a day. You're going to miss a lot of those shots. But that's OK. Because you're teaching yourself it's OK to miss.
Howard has stopped worrying about peripheral adversaries and regained his joie de vivre on the hardwood.
Indeed, the superstar center is cutting harder to the basket in pick-and-rolls, he’s attacking the glass like a madman and anchoring the paint defensively. But more importantly, he is smiling on the court again.
Many despise Howard’s willingness to joke around with teammates and opponents on the court, but that gives him his edge. Being happy makes him play like an All-NBA performer.
Thus, it was important that he regained that passion for the game.
Earlier in the season, his feelings and emotions got the best of him and held him back. Joining his new teammates required commitment and hard work. But his resolve in these aspects went unnoticed. Howard felt as though he garnered more scrutiny for his injuries and recovery time than others had. But that's are all in the past now.
The focus has now shifted to playing the best basketball possible with a playoff berth at stake.
If the nine-year veteran plans on following the footsteps of Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Shaquille O’Neal into the pantheon of great Laker big men, he has to lead this team to the Promised Land.
This might have sounded preposterous six weeks ago, but the team’s fortunes have certainly changed.
Howard is now armed with his old attitude and a semblance of his old body. And believe or not, that’s exactly what the Lakers needed.
J.M. Poulard is a featured columnist and can be found on Twitter under the handle name @ShyneIV.
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