James Harden #13 of the Houston Rockets shoots over Dwight Howard #12 of the Los Angeles Lakers at Staples Center on April 17, 2013 in Los Angeles, California. Howard had four blocks and was instrumental on the defensive end of the floor in the Lakers 99-95 win in overtime.
With the season-ending injury to Kobe Bryant, the Los Angeles Lakers have transformed overnight into a team committed to defense, and that shift in focus comes from their team leader: Dwight Howard.
All season long, the Los Angeles Lakers have had trouble sustaining defensive focus, and fans have suffered by not walking out of Staples Center with tacos. Fittingly, the final game of the season was fan appreciation night, and everyone in attendance received two free tacos upon exit even if the Lakers did not win and hold their opponents under 100 points.
However, fans would have walked out with two free tacos on Wednesday night even without the fan appreciation promotion, as the Lakers held the Houston Rockets to 95 points—that’s with an overtime period included. With the way the Lakers are playing, Jack In The Box should be prepared to regularly hand out free tacos if the Lakers make any sort of extended playoff run.
All season long, Howard has preached defense and pleaded for focus on that end of the floor. However, once Bryant went down, the team had no choice but to buy in defensively. With Bryant around, the Lakers would consistently fall into the trap of trying to outscore teams and seemingly fall asleep on defense.
When Bryant went out, the option to outshoot and outscore teams went out with him. What remained in the rubble of Bryant’s torn Achilles was Howard’s voice pleading for defensive focus.
On the night Kobe went down, Dwight Howard was asked if it was incumbent on him, Pau Gasol, and some of the others to pick up for Kobe’s scoring, and he responded with one word: “Defense.”
Looking around the locker room, there was no longer a genuine belief that the Lakers had enough points on the roster to simply outscore opponents, and Howard was asked if he would be able to score 30, 40, or even 50 points for the Lakers to fill the void.
Instead of talking about scoring and offense, Howard uttered the same ideas he had repeated all season long, but they carried significantly more meaning with Bryant’s voice absent. The easier response would have been to say that he needed to do a bit more offensively, but Howard decisively chose to go with the alternative.
“The offense will come, but that should not be our focus,” Howard told media while Kobe Bryant was still in the training room searching for crutches. “Our focus should be on locking our defense, trusting each other, rotating, and doing our best on the defensive end.”
Howard reminded anyone who cared to pay attention: offense wins games, but defense wins championships.
With Bryant gone, Howard was the leader, and the focus of the team shifted overnight. The Lakers no longer had their top homerun hitter, but they had a pitcher who could throw a complete game shutout.
Without Bryant, the Lakers won two games in must-win situations, and in both games, they held their opponents to under 100 points. In Wednesday’s season finale, they held the highest scoring team in the 2012-13 season to 95 points. Normally, the Rockets averaged 106.1 points per game. Even with five extra minutes of overtime, the Lakers held the Rockets to 95 points—Tacos for everyone.
To illustrate the transformation, the Rockets averaged 113 points in the Lakers’ three previous meetings this season. Also, entering Wednesday’s game, the Rockets had scored over 100 points in seven of their last eight games. That didn’t matter on Wednesday.
Dwight Howard’s Lakers held the best scoring team in the league, and Howard confidently credited the team’s defensive focus and energy for the win afterward.
The coach of the Lakers, Mike D’Antoni, is a man widely considered to be one-dimensional, and that dimension is offense. Ironically, D’Antoni’s playoffs success with the Lakers seemingly hinges entirely on defense. Along with the players, D’Antoni has also finally bought into what Howard is preaching—defense.