Wednesday, March 6, 2013 Updated: March 7, 3:51 AM ET
Kobe-Dwight partnership forged
By Dave McMenamin ESPNLosAngeles.com
NEW ORLEANS -- There has been a bit of a turf war in the Los Angeles Lakers' locker room since the first day of training camp this season.
Kobe Bryant wanted to make it clear he wasn't being pushed out the door. Dwight Howard wanted everybody to know he had arrived on the scene.
"I got a question earlier about whose team this is," Bryant said back on media day. "I don't want to get into the, 'Well, we share ...' No, it's my team. But I want to make sure that Dwight, when I retire, this is going to be his. I want to teach him everything I possibly know so that when I step away, this organization can ride on as if I never left."
The first three quarters of the season played out with Bryant seemingly pushing his hardest because he knows he doesn't have much longer to play and Howard seemingly not wanting to push too hard because he knows how much longer he has to play.
There were conflicting agendas and personalities, enough drama to fill an HBO series and not enough wins to punch a playoff ticket.
But there was also this: the shame of such a failed partnership hanging over the heads of Bryant and Howard like a guillotine that if they didn't make it work, would end up marring them both equally.
Kobe Bryant, left, carried the Lakers on offense Wednesday and Dwight Howard did it on defense, showing off the formula the team hoped for all along.
Bryant would be called selfish. Howard would be called childish. Neither would win.
And so in Game No. 62 of 82 on Wednesday night with the season in danger of truly unraveling as the Lakers trailed by 25 points in the first half to a truly lousy New Orleans team, a partnership was forged out of necessity if not anything else.
Kobe, you put the ball in the hoop. Dwight, you stop the other team from doing the same.
Kobe, you hit the winning basket -- a fadeaway pull-up jumper with 36.3 seconds left to put L.A. up 104-102. Dwight, you make the game-saving defensive play -- a block on Hornets 7-footer Robin Lopez's inside attempt with 27.1 seconds left.
"We really complemented each other extremely well and played to each other's strengths," Bryant said after finishing with 42 points, 12 assists and seven rebounds. "I directed us offensively tonight, and he did his thing defensively."
Bryant is one of the five players in NBA history to score 30,000 points.
Howard is one of the three players in NBA history to be named Defensive Player of the Year three or more times.
Naturally, one guy leads the offense and the other guy leads the defense, right?
Howard's first-half foul trouble made his defensive value all the more apparent. Howard played only 11 minutes in the first two quarters, as he was saddled with three fouls, putting up seven points, three rebounds and one block.
He played all but two seconds of the second half, managing to play much of it with five fouls, and finished with 20 points, 15 rebounds and four blocks.
"Just from watching on the bench, they were in the paint a lot. They were hitting 3s. They were just doing whatever they wanted," Howard said. "In the second half, I just tried to be a presence on the inside."
Howard internalized his goal for the game the same way Bryant set his mental goal at halftime.
"Honestly, I was thinking I need to bring my teammates along with me," Bryant said. "So I just kept telling myself at halftime, 'I got to bring them with me.' ... Because I was getting to the rim at the end of the first half and I knew I could score any time I wanted to, but I said, 'I got to bring them along with me.' I got to force the game upon them and hope that turns the tide."
Of course, it was about more than just Bryant and Howard. Bryant's assists drop dramatically if Jodie Meeks doesn't go off for 12 of his 19 points in the fourth quarter, helping L.A. finish the game on a 20-0 run. Howard's head doesn't necessarily stay in it if he doesn't have Pau Gasol in street clothes feeding him positivity during fourth-quarter timeouts, pounding the big man's chest and staring straight into his eyes to let him know he's connected, he's appreciated, he's needed. He has arrived.
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"Of course you'd like to rely on [Bryant and Howard] from night to night, but it's not going to happen that way every night," Steve Nash said. "A team has to find a way to win games, and I think tonight Jodie's shooting was as big as anything because it opened the floor up for Kobe. They didn't want to leave him, and people typically haven't been leaving me and it leaves more space for Kobe to operate. Of course, Kobe was Kobe and Dwight was terrific, but Jodie making shots really stretched the floor and allowed Kobe to be even more unguardable down the stretch."
As much as the Lakers are more than Bryant and Howard, they're also nothing without them. Even though the two of them have come through the season with different perspectives, they have experienced the same journey.
After the Lakers' blowout loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder on Tuesday, Bryant tweeted a line from the goofy movie comedy "Wedding Crashers" that Vince Vaughn's character says: "Rule number 76. No excuses. Play like a champion."
Following the Lakers' come-from-behind win over the Hornets the next night, Bryant said this about Howard: "He brought himself along. I didn't do anything. That's a decision he made to say, 'I'm going to dominate the game on this end of the floor and there's nothing anybody is going to be able to do about it.' That's a choice he made."
In other words, Howard didn't make any excuses. And a five-time champion recognized him for it.
Said Howard: "It shows we're coming together and we're not letting situations on the outside affect us. We're fighting through this and we got to do it together. Everybody in this locker room has got to believe."
Said Bryant, from the opposite end of the locker room: "I'm just proud of how we did it together. That's the most important thing."
There was space between the sun and the moon of the Lakers' sky, but they were speaking the same language.