- Dave McMenamin, ESPN Staff Writer
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"Outside of Oklahoma [City], who really has any big men?"
Tuesday was a major reminder that the Lakers do. And not just any big man, either. Dwight Howard reminded us all why he's the best big man in the league.
Yes, Howard did his 31 points on 14-for-18 shooting, 16 rebounds and four blocks' worth of damage against a trio of rail-thin Milwaukee men in the middle in Larry Sanders, Ekpe Udoh and Samuel Dalembert.
But that's kind of the point, right? What team in the league is equipped to handle the Lakers if Howard is hitting on all cylinders and their offense is humming with Steve Nash controlling the ball (11 assists on Tuesday) and Kobe Bryant attacking from all angles (31 points on 12-for-19 shooting)? Isn't this the team everyone envisioned when championship expectations were thrust upon them in the first place?
Two wins in a row at home against Eastern Conference teams that won't be relevant come playoff time don't automatically get the Lakers back on track for a ring, of course. They're still just 17-21 and three games behind Portland for the eighth seed in the West.
But in what has been anointed a perimeter-oriented league since the Thunder and Miami Heat played in the Finals last season, the fact still remains that in a game in which the goal is for your team to put the ball in a 10-foot hoop, the team with the most dominant big man has an extreme competitive advantage.
"I think it's true, the league is going smaller, especially in the 4 position and the 5 on some of those teams -- on Miami, the 5 for sure -- but there's a lot of ways to skin the cat, and when you have a player of Dwight's ability, it can only be to your advantage," Nash said. "I think the sky's the limit. We're still in the infancy as far as putting this thing together."
In Howard's past three games, he's averaging 22.3 points, 18.7 rebounds and 3.0 blocks while shooting an mind-numbing 29-for-36 from the field (80.6 percent). That's more accurate than Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods in that new "no cup is safe" commercial.
Howard has been preaching the importance of team all season long, but was asked a pretty simple question after the game: Does he realize that the outcome of the game can be decided night in and night out solely on his effort?
"They brought me here for a reason," Howard said. "I didn't expect to come out from the beginning and be who I was with the surgery and everything. I knew that would take time. I've been patient with that and just trusting my body and allowing it to heal. Everything is coming around."
Just like Bryant has committed to guarding the opposing team's primary ball handler no matter what type of energy it will take (he held Brandon Jennings to 12 points on 4-for-14 shooting on Tuesday, causing Jennings to say, "It was probably the best defense anybody's played on me since I've been in the league"), Howard has seemingly finally asserted himself fully to the Lakers' cause.
"I think he's just accepted things for what they are," Bryant said. "When you go out there and you play burden-free, it's amazing what happens.
"I think he's just playing. I don't think he's thinking. I don't think he's out there thinking about what you guys may say -- saying, 'Well, I got to get 20 points and whatever-many rebounds so this way everybody's not talking smack.' I don't think he's thinking that way, which is how you should play. Just go out there and just let it all hang out. Just play hard. It's amazing when you do that, everything comes back to you, and I think that's the way he's been playing."
Maybe Howard can and will be everything the Lakers need to make the improbable comeback to contender status.
"I think he keeps getting stronger. He keeps getting better," Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni said. "Obviously, he's what we were missing when he was out."
A dominant big man down low is precisely what the defending-champion Heat will be missing, too, when they roll into L.A. on Thursday.
Who really has big men? Better not forget to put the Lakers on that short list, Kobe.
1dSteve Ilardi and Jeremias Engelmann