- Dave McMenamin, ESPN Staff Writer
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WASHINGTON -- It has been such a circus of a season for the Los Angeles Lakers, full of them looking at times as distorted as a reflection in a funhouse mirror, that you actually believed Kobe Bryant when he expressed genuine relief after his team disposed of the league's laughingstock, the Washington Wizards, on Friday.
"I am actually," a beaming Bryant said when asked if he was relishing the end of his team's four-game losing streak after holding on to beat the Wizards, 102-96. "I am! I am. I'm very, very happy to win one damn game."
The Lakers' uneasy win against the now 3-17 Wizards should have been a slam dunk with John Wall still out, but then again, it has been a campaign full of shoulda-coulda-wouldas for the Lakers so far.
The Lakers could have made things work with Mike Brown's Princeton offense if they just stayed the course.
The Lakers would have been better off using their 15th roster spot on another proven player who could help their bench rather than going with the rookie Darius Johnson-Odom after injuries to Nash and Steve Blake depleted their depth chart.
But as bad as everything has gone for the 10-14 Lakers, who won for only the second time in eight games this month, there's a major reminder coming up on the schedule Sunday of one thing that has gone completely in their favor: They'll be playing the Philadelphia 76ers with Howard in the lineup while the Sixers continue to play the waiting game and wonder if they'll ever get to see the same Andrew Bynum they thought they traded for.
It should be a wake-up call for Lakers fans who have picked apart Howard every which way for not being enough of a leader or not being able to hit a free throw or not being quick enough to adapt to coach Mike D'Antoni's system. At least he's on the court to pick apart.
When the Lakers made the Bynum-for-Howard four-team trade, the three-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year was still reeling from offseason back surgery. There were people in the organization who didn't think he'd be on the court until December. Howard himself said Thursday he wasn't "supposed to be" playing until January.
Yet he has been in there every game, averaging 18.5 points, 11.9 rebounds and 2.5 blocks coming into Friday night, while Bynum's season stat line with the Sixers sits at all zeros.
"Of course as a basketball player, if somebody is injured you want to make sure they get a speedy recovery," Howard said when asked about Bynum after putting up 12 points, 14 rebounds and 4 blocks in just 32 minutes against Washington as he was limited by foul trouble. "I know what it feels like to be injured and not being able to help your team, but we have enough problems on our team that I need to put my focus on. I wish him the best and hopefully he gets healthy and he can stay healthy, but my focus is that I remain healthy and I get back to 100 percent and our team."
Howard clearly didn't want to talk about Bynum. When the guy with the goofy hairdo and unfortunate knees was first brought up, Howard rebuffed the subject matter, saying, "That has nothing to do with tonight's game."
When told Bynum has something to do with the Lakers' next game, as well as having something to do with being the only other center in the league who can come close to matching Howard's skill set, he replied, "I don't know what you want me to say."
You can't blame Howard for not wanting to pipe up and kick a man while he's down. At the same time, Howard also has the natural self-serving motivation of trying to steer clear of any names that can be linked to the "Dwightmare" fiasco from last season.
Maybe he also has started to learn that a less-is-more approach when it comes to talking would be appreciated by his team at this moment. After he took only 11 shots in the Lakers' loss to the Knicks on Thursday, Howard snapped that he needed more touches on the block. Friday morning, D'Antoni set Howard and the team straight on what he expects on offense from his All-Star center and the rest of his teammates, and it would not involve simply feeding him in the post so the squeaky wheel gets his grease.
"If we run our offense right, [Howard] will get plenty of opportunities and he should get them. He should be involved in every play," D'Antoni said. "But when you start pinpointing things and you go to it, I think that's when you get in trouble. We need that flow. We need to have a tempo on offense. ... We told them today, 'You need to play the 16 to 18 seconds of Laker basketball. Laker basketball is this: A,B, C ...' Then after that, yeah, we got guys on the team that when we need a shot, throw it to them and they produce a shot."
Howard got more touches Friday after digesting D'Antoni's offensive manifesto at the team's morning brunch, and he made the right decisions, dishing out to open teammates when he was double-teamed (helping Jodie Meeks go off for 24 points in the process) and calling his own number when it was one-on-one coverage, even if he ended up with only eight shots.
"We did a good job tonight of sharing the ball," Howard said. "We moved the ball around the perimeter. Threw it in the post, got doubled and kicked it out and guys hit shots. So, we just got to build off that."
Bryant had his take.
"Go set screens, roll down the paint and free guys up. He's really good at that. By him rolling down the middle of the lane, it makes guys better," Bryant said of Howard's moving with a purpose when the team runs pick-and-rolls. "Then at the end of the game, when he posts up and they come and double, kick it out, make guys better. They play you straight up, then shoot the ball 20 to 30 times. If they double you, kick it."
It's rare for Bryant to openly suggest a teammate taking 20 to 30 shots, but then again, he has started to lean on his young, talented, big-men teammates in recent seasons, even drawing up a play for Bynum to take the winning shot against the Boston Celtics last season.
When Bryant was asked about Bynum, he said he hoped Bynum would get healthy soon and then mentioned the personality trait that Bynum possesses that makes him different from the fun-loving Howard. "He has a temper, which I always enjoyed because he was always kind of on edge," Bryant said.
Howard, meanwhile, missed a late free throw with the Lakers' once 16-point lead down to seven with 1:22 remaining. Bryant tipped the rebound in for the game-sealing putback, and Howard said he meant to miss it.
"That was a set play," Howard joked. "We had worked on that the other day in shootaround. It was called, '12 Miss.'"
Howard wears No. 12.
What's missing from Howard's game is the explosiveness that made him the most feared defender in the league, but it's coming back. In addition to Howard's four blocks Friday, he had a few more swats that were called for goaltending.
"Stretches of really good," D'Antoni said of Howard's season so far. "Stretches of frustration, and I don't think he's there totally."
But, the important fact that shouldn't get lost in all the Lakers' frustration is that Howard actually is there -- as in on the court. If you want to talk about frustration, think about how Philly must feel with Bynum yet to don his No. 33 red-white-and-blue uniform.
And while Howard is on the court, he also has showed signs that he'll want to stay in purple and gold in L.A. when he becomes a free agent next summer.
"I'm from New York. I'm from the media capitol so, me, I've always wanted to be in the spotlight," Metta World Peace said. "That's why I came to L.A. I didn't come to L.A. to grow corn. I came to L.A. to be in the spotlight. I think [Howard] came here to be in the spotlight, too."
That spotlight will have dual beams Sunday in Philadelphia. One will shine on Howard. One will shine on Bynum. But only one of them will be on the court.
3dSteve Ilardi and Jeremias Engelmann