By BILL PLASCHKE of the LA Times
Without Kobe Bryant, the center has taken Lakers on his back going into the playoffs.
In the final minutes of the final night of the regular season, one of the NBA‘s freshest stars was met in front of the basket by one of the NBA’s most frustrating stars.
James Harden was on his way up. Dwight Howard was standing still. It was the perfect metaphor for two players whose careers had spent this winter careening in different directions.
Harden had become the Rockets’ future. Howard couldn’t figure out how he fit in the Lakers’ present.
They were two men on vastly different paths when, with 2:11 left in the Staples Center paint in overtime of the Lakers’ battle with the Rockets on Wednesday night, those paths collided.
Time to draw a new map.
Harden, headed for layup that would give the Rockets the lead, went up, up, up … and down.
Howard grabbed the ball out of Harden’s hands and pulled it to his chest and flung the bearded wonder into a heap on the baseline, leaving him writhing on the Lakers’ insignia.
It was a blocked shot. It was a steal. It was a mugging. It was magnificent.
For many Lakers fans who have waited seven months for Howard to finally show up, it was more than a play, it was a statement of relief and awe.
So that is what Superman looks like.
It’s been only two full games since Kobe Bryant shuffled off the floor with a torn Achilles’ tendon Friday night, and now Dwight Howard is a player transformed.
He’s been playing with an aggressive freedom rarely seen during those long winter nights of moping through Memphis. He’s been playing with a resilient swagger that had somehow become lost in all the courtside clowning.
He acts as if he’s just shed a straitjacket of doubt, his movements filled with a relentless intensity, his game teeming with joy.
He acts like — with Bryant suddenly gone and the franchise’s future suddenly here — the Lakers are his team. At this rate, who knows, maybe they will be.
“This is the Dwight we thought we’d see,” teammate Steve Blake said.
This is the Howard who led the confused and depleted Lakers against San Antonio and Houston by sheer force of his defensive will. He has long been the league’s best rebounder, but this was about much more. This was about the Lakers shooting 37% in consecutive games while missing a combined 40 three-point attempts and yet winning both games because Howard’s defense wouldn’t let them lose.
This is the Howard who, in the final minutes of regulation against the Rockets, typified his resurgence with one memorable sequence. First, Howard jumped in Harden’s face to stop a layup attempt, forcing a pass. Then, after missing his own layup at the other end, Howard raced downcourt and knocked the ball off Jeremy Lin‘s leg under the basket. It was just a simple steal that will never make a highlight reel, but it caused Howard to spin away and ball up his fists and scream to the sky while a rowdy Staples Center crowd screamed with him.
The Lakers are not a better team without Bryant, but Howard is clearly a more empowered player. It doesn’t seem likely he can lead them to more than a stolen victory or two in their first-round playoff series against the Spurs, but now it seems obvious that he will be healthy and hearty enough to lead them into the future after his inevitable re-signing here this summer.
Like his prodigal team, he’s showing up late, but just in time to party.
“This whole season has been a great learning experience for me,” Howard said late Wednesday night after the Lakers’ 99-95 overtime victory over the Rockets. “It’s been a humbling experience, but also a learning experience. I had to learn from my mistakes, learn from watching guys like Kobe and Pau [Gasol], dealing with the L.A. media, it’s a lot different.”
He understands now that injuries — he was recovering from back surgery when the season started and says he is still not fully healed — are no excuse for intensity.
“It was a tough process, I kept fighting. I kept coming in and working my butt off,” he said.
He understands now that every loss is a big Lakers deal, as he still smiles and jokes in the locker room, but no longer grins at a missed free throw or turnover.
“It has been maturing me, making me a better leader for this team,” he said of his season.
He was the only Laker to speak to the team before its first practice after Bryant’s injury. He has since been the loudest Laker speaking in the huddles and after the games. Everyone knew he had a laugh, who knew he also had a voice?
“They are all looking at me,” he said.
Everyone was still looking at him long after Wednesday’s victory when he met Gasol in the Staples Center hallway outside the Lakers’ locker room. They unabashedly hugged and walked to their cars together as if leaving a high school gym. Howard led. Gasol followed. It was a nice ending. It was a sweet beginning.