- Ramona Shelburne, ESPN Senior Writer
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All he's supposed to do is play defense, right?
Lock up the middle of the key, protect the rim, cover up his teammates' mistakes. Well, he did that Sunday. He has been doing that ever since he looked himself in the mirror over the All-Star break and realized he needed to start delivering at that end of the floor.
The offense, the smiling, the dunks are extras. Nice when the Lakers have the time or the latitude in the standings for him to have fun with such things. But right now, with the Lakers fighting to salvage what's left of this disappointing season, the only thing that matters is defense.
Howard did that Sunday. He protected the rim, he intimidated shots, he got back on defense instead of trying to crash the offensive boards.
It was his teammates who regressed on this day. The Lakers' transition defense was horrendous again. Their rotations were slow or ineffective. And the Clippers exploited every one of their failings again and again.
"He should get frustrated when other guys are not doing what they should be doing," Lakers forward Antawn Jamison told ESPNLosAngeles.com. "You can't have one guy defensively do his job and everybody else is not doing theirs. That's been our point of emphasis the last couple games. But we backtracked [Sunday] instead of continuing to concentrate on that.
"And it shouldn't be happening now, especially with where we're at."
Who is that on?
"All of us," Jamison said. "Everyone."
Howard has a different way of showing his anger than most people are used to. He doesn't believe in bashing his teammates publicly. Instead he'll either say very little, or say just enough to clue you in on where his head is.
Sunday afternoon he was about as terse and upset as he has been at any point this season.
His answers were one or two sentences. His expression was sullen.
"We just need to play the right way," he repeated at least five times. "We know what we have to do to win."
When a reporter asked if Howard was frustrated or upset or disappointed about the loss, he paused and said, "Can we ask some more questions?"
There was no explanation needed. He had every reason to be upset, disappointed or frustrated.
As Jamison put it: "We had a game plan, we knew exactly what we wanted to do. We just didn't execute it. We didn't get to our spots. I think they had 24 second-chance points. Transition. We wanted to get back and make it difficult for those guys. Those are the two aspects we really wanted to execute tonight and we weren't able to do that."
If it were that simple however, the Lakers would have figured out this puzzle box a long time ago. Instead it's becoming harder and harder to crack.
Because as admirable as Howard's defensive efforts have been lately, he also lets his frustration over his teammates failings affect other parts of his game. His offense suffers. His body language is bad.
His four rebounds Sunday were baffling.
Four rebounds? For a center as talented and athletic as Howard?
Yes, the Clippers do have a lot of good rebounders. Matt Barnes and Caron Butler crash the boards well for small forwards. Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan can match Howard's athleticism and quickness jump for jump.
But a player leading the league in rebounding should almost never finish with just four rebounds in a game of this importance. And the Lakers, with Howard and Pau Gasol should almost never get out-rebounded so badly (50-36).
Which brings us back to about the only thing that always has been clear about the Lakers in this season: They just can't seem to put it all together.
They're so talented they can still beat any team on any given night. But even when they start to get something right, other things go wrong.
They fix one thing, another goes wrong. They get an injured player back, another goes down.
It has been maddening at every turn.
Jamison came here to chase a ring in the twilight of his career. Accomplished as he is, he never has been past the second round of the playoffs.
This seemed like a sure thing. Sure enough, anyway, to pass on a much more lucrative offer from his hometown Charlotte Bobcats that would've allowed him to spend more time with his family.
This is not what he had in mind, however.
"It's just frustrating when you know the situation is at hand and you come out and don't play the way you need to play," he said.
"It's easy to speculate where we should be, but the reality is, we are where we are. Should we be in this situation with what we have? But it is what it is."
Somehow, after everything, the Lakers still have a good chance to get in to the playoffs. They don't completely control their own destiny, but they should have the final say in how this all ends up.
As always, the problems -- and the solutions -- are within.
2dMarc Stein and Ramona Shelburne