The return of Pau Gasol and Kobe Bryant may dominate headlines, but the reason to be excited about the Los Angeles Lakers ahead of the playoffs is Dwight Howard.
For the first two-thirds of the season, Howard looked like he was ambling through a mandatory practice. Occasionally, he would show some signs of his natural ability, but for the most part, he was saving his best stuff for the real game.
Granted, Howard was coming off a major back surgery, but he has since hinted that he did not truly trust his body until after the All-Star break.
After the All-Star break, Howard started playing, and it was easy to see why the Lakers had not been winning for most of the season. Even without Gasol, the Lakers have put together an 11-4 record since Howard came out and let it all hang out.
To be completely honest, Bryant has put together one of the best seasons of his legendary career, but without Howard dominating defensively for the first two-thirds of the season, the Lakers were not even considered a playoff team.
Bryant effectively missed the last three games for the Lakers, and just about everyone had the Lakers penciled in for a loss at Indiana. The Lakers won two out of those three Byrant-less games, including at Indiana.
Howard may not get the game ball, but his shot-changing ability, defensive activity, and overall defensive effort make the difference for Los Angeles.
Following the All-Star break, Howard has recorded at least one block in all but one game. In the Lakers’ last five wins, Howard averaged 4.2 blocks per game, and he swatted at least three blocks in each of those games. In the Lakers’ last three losses, Howard averaged less than a block per game and never recorded more than one block in any of those losses.
Howard's defensive activity is the difference between the impressive good Lakers and the unwatchable bad Lakers.
After completing his first full court practice on Wednesday, Triple Threat asked Gasol if he was more optimistic that his partnership with Howard would work out this time around because Howard was playing like the defensive monster that dominated the league on that end of the floor for the better part of the last decade.
“Because of his physical attributes, athleticism, and physical strength, [Howard] can be a bigger factor—especially on the defensive end. So, that—to me—is the difference maker,” Gasol agreed.
“If he does that, he puts us on another level,” Gasol elaborated. “Defensively, that’s the main thing going down the playoffs. If we can be a defensive team, a solid team, a team that gets stops. Regardless of how many shots you’re making on the other end, I think that’s what’s going to make it work in order for us to get far.”
This week may be about the return of Bryant and Gasol to the team, and the next 13 games may be about re-integrating Gasol into the Lakers’ starting lineup, but this season and postseason will ultimately come down to Howard and defense.