Dwight is Back; Lakers Host Rockets Thursday

Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers host Dwight Howard and the Houston Rockets on Thursday night at Staples Center

The Los Angeles Lakers and the Houston Rockets meet, as LA gets another dose of Dwight Howard back in LA.

Life for Howard has hardly been peachy roses lately, as recent reports have surfaced stating that the 30-year-old is upset with his role in the Rockets' offense and is expecting to opt out of his contract and become a free agent at the end of the season. Basically, it's déjà vu, but the Lakers don't have to deal with Howard's headache this time around, unless the Lakers' front office loses its mind and pursues Howard in free agency.

Instead of going down that dark, dark tunnel, Thursday offers the Lakers an opportunity to defend their world championship title for the first time. The 2015 NBA Champion Golden State Warriors went undefeated for the first third of the NBA season before finally losing to the Milwaukee Bucks. Then, the Bucks spent a rather late night at an adult club to celebrate their new championship, which is surprising because this championship is not tangible in the form of rings, a trophy, a parade or even any acknowledgement from players, coaches or team personnel. It's almost as if the entire title is made up.

In any case, the Lakers came home from a long road trip hungry for home cooking and a win.

LA beat Milwaukee, so the Lakers are now the holders of the NBA title. On Thursday against Houston, LA experiences its first title defense and searches for its first winning streak of the season. At 4-21, the Lakers have not exactly excelled this season, but Tuesday's blowout win showed signs of maturation from the team, and in particular rookie D'Angelo Russell.

"Things are coming easier since I've had that experience knowing there is a flow to the game that you have to figure out, the pace," Russell said after scoring 19 points and leading the team with seven assists against Milwaukee.

The 19-year-old rookie added, "Ever since [I moved to the bench], I got to see the game from a different perspective. I just didn't let it bother me. I found ways I can get better from it. It looks like it's working out well."

While Russell is hitting his high notes, the player galvanizing the crowd and turning heads is the same 37-year-old who has been turning heads in the Lakers' colors for nearly two decades. Kobe Bryant appears to have regained his legs, shooting ability and confidence. Bryant is shooting 47 percent from the field over the past five games after starting the season looking like a player that had failed to play consistent basketball for the past couple of seasons.

Also, Bryant's minutes are dropping, but that could be fool's gold considering the 19-year veteran has only featured for a total of 4 minutes and 25 seconds in the fourth quarters of the previous four games. Had those games been closer, Bryant's minutes may still have added up to be higher than expected.

On Thursday, though, it's still "Kobe versus Dwight." Bryant may downplay his feud with Howard, especially after the two hugged it out in Houston on Saturday, but he subtly challenged rookie Larry Nance Jr. to dunk on Howard during Tuesday's game. 

Even if the Lakers don't win and retain their imaginary title, watching Nance dunk on Howard (or even try to) should make for solid entertainment.

At Staples Center in LA, the Lakers and Rockets tip-off at 7:30 p.m. Pacific Time.

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