1. Howard Stepping Into Anchorman Role
Going forward, do they know how often they'll get this version of Howard? And how often will Howard get what he wants and needs from the Lakers? That will determine whether this team that currently resides four games out of a playoff spot can become relevant in the Western Conference again, and possibly whether Howard will remain in Lakerland beyond this season.
Howard returned to action Sunday after missing the previous three games because of torn cartilage in his right shoulder. He put up Dwight Howard-type numbers in an easy 113-93 victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers: 22 points and 14 rebounds.
"He was a great presence for us, good energy," Steve Nash said. Then Nash dropped one of the strongest proclamations made to the media in the Lakers locker room this season: "You know, he's the anchor of the team. When he plays with energy, plays hard defensively, we're a different team. The only way for us to realize our aspirations is if he's that presence defensively."
Notice that Nash didn't pose it as a given, that it is what can be expected every night. There have been games that Howard has had 22-14 lines and nights that he has seemed like an afterthought, posting single digits in shots, points and rebounds. It's worth noting that Howard has done all of this less than a year after back surgery, and he did grab 26 rebounds the game after he first injured his shoulder, before tests showed the damage required him to take a seat.
It's also noteworthy that the Lakers are 6-4 when Howard has at least 20 points and 10 rebounds. The record might not be that impressive, but it sure beats their 10-17 record when he doesn't.
Lends a little credence to Nash's anchor line. Howard sees it the same way.
"It is my role," Howard said. "Both ends. To help other guys get open [on offense]. On the defensive end, to make sure I'm communicating, talking, telling guys where they need me to be. I understand that they need me on the floor and they need me focused every night in order for us to win."
Still, if you're going to play in Shaquille O'Neal's old building (and soon beneath Shaq's giant, retired jersey), you're going to have to live up to Shaq standards. In Shaq's first 34 games as a Laker in 1996-97 he had 29 games of at least 20 points and 10 rebounds -- almost triple Howard's ability to meet those thresholds so far in L.A.
That's the thing that made me want to hit the brakes whenever people tried to compare this Laker team's 15-20 start to the Lakers' 15-20 record that didn't deter them from reaching the playoffs in 2003. That team had Shaq.
Howard doesn't want the constant Shaq comparisons. He also doesn't want the focus on himself (he talked about being the anchor only when I asked him about it). He spent most of the time after the game talking about what he liked about everyone else's performance.
"The ball moved," Howard said. "Everybody was in a good rhythm on the offensive end. On the defensive end, we were in the right spots. We forced them to take tough shots."
He has registered complaints in the past when the offense became too Kobe-centric and the defense too disorganized. Kobe Bryant took only 14 shots to score his 23 points in this game, and had six assists as well. The Cavaliers shot 41 percent, including 19 percent on their 3-point shots.
Howard made it clear that this was more to his liking.
"When we play like this, we win and we win big," Howard said.
Wins of any kind have been rare lately. So it is that a victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers accounted for one of the most meaningful and productive days of the 2012-2013 season. Certainly the 2013 portion of it.
The Lakers got their first victory since Dec. 28, when they beat the Portland Trail Blazers. This victory came against a Cavaliers team that was without Anderson Varejao and is now 9-30 (Only seven of the Lakers' 16 victories have come against opponents that currently have a winning record.) The Lakers committed 22 turnovers.
They did shoot 58 percent against a Cavs defense that offered little resistance.
Still, there is much work to be done. Howard had seven of the turnovers. The Lakers have yet to smoothly integrate him and Bryant. A pair of turnovers in the second quarter demonstrated how they remain a couple of web clicks apart. On the first, Bryant had the ball along the baseline, and Howard's defender, Tyler Zeller, dropped down to help. Kobe let out a whoop for Dwight to cut through the lane, but Dwight didn't respond. Kobe drove on his own against the double-team and was called for carrying over.
Two plays later, Howard had the ball, posted up on the left block and Bryant flashed to the basket and whooped again. Howard didn't see him, and Bryant was called for a three-second violation.
Howard did get three of his nine baskets off feeds from Bryant. They both require enough attention from defenses that they should be able to make it easier for each other to score. It just hasn't happened enough to make the Lakers a winning team.
Howard's return and his activity on the boards also kept Earl Clark just shy of his third consecutive double-double. Clark finished with 13 points and nine rebounds, and drew raves from his coach and teammates.
The Lakers didn't strike fear into the rest of the NBA with this victory. All they did was deploy a parachute to slow their own plummet.
"This is a baby step," Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni said. " But it's a step."
2. Around The Association
Recap | Box score
Most valuable player: Joe Johnson. The Barclays Center crowd may have been chanting "M-V-P" for Deron Williams, but it was Johnson who hit the go-ahead 3-pointer in the fourth quarter and another that put Brooklyn up double digits.
X factor: David West. Indiana's power forward made his first five shots and helped spread the floor for a Pacers' offense that shot 52.5 percent through the first three quarters, including 27-for-44 (61.4 percent) inside the 3-point line.
That was ... stifling. Indiana entered the fourth quarter in control, but Brooklyn held them to just 11 points in the final period on 3-for-22 (13.6 percent) shooting. The Nets' near-impervious defense, plus a loud crowd, propelled them to an unexpectedly easy win.
Recap | Box
MVP: John Henson had a huge performance off the bench for the Bucks, powering their second-quarter run and finishing with 19 points and six rebounds in just 22 minutes.
X factor: Bench scoring. Henson wasn't the only contributor off the bench for Milwaukee. Mike Dunleavy added 15 points, and the Bucks' bench as a whole outscored the Raptors' reserves 43-7.
Least valuable player: Landry Fields. Four of the five Raptors starters had excellent games, but Fields was a complete nonfactor, scoring just three points and collecting one rebound in 29 minutes.
Recap | Box score
MVP: Chris Copeland, a distinguished alumnus of the Belgian pro league, moved into the starting lineup and gave the Knicks a reliable non-Melo scoring option. He netted 22 points on 9-for-15 shooting, banging home treys and finishing at the rim with equal aplomb.
X factor: The Knicks have struggled at the PG spot in Raymond Felton's absence. Pablo Prigioni, yet another aged rookie, took the tiller for the second unit, providing pesky defense and penetrating the painted area.
That was ... placating: A sleepy matinee victory isn't going to reinstate the buzz of the Knicks' early season rampage, but it was desperately needed for a team that was hearing murmurs and whispers of doubt transform into fully-throated cries of panic.
Recap | Box score
MVP: Tony Parker. While the Wolves hung around through 3½ quarters, it was Parker who kept them at bay with transition buckets and solid playmaking, ending up with 20 points (10-for-15) and six assists.
Defining moment: When Gregg Popovich was ejected with 7:22 remaining in the fourth, it looked like the Wolves could maybe use it to their advantage. Nope. Spurs promptly pushed it out to a 19-point lead.
X factor: About as quietly as possible, Tim Duncan put together an amazing 12 points, nine rebounds, seven blocks, five assists and three steals. Just doing work; no big deal.
Recap | Box score
MVP: Kobe Bryant was stellar tonight, finishing the game with 23 points on 9-for-14 shooting and six assists. It seemed than whenever the Lakers' lead dwindled, Kobe was able to hit a jumper or find an open teammate.
LVP: The Cavaliers defense, which seemed wholly uninterested in closing out on shooters and defending the paint. The Lakers shot 58 percent from the floor and went 13-for-25 from beyond the arc.
X factor: Dwight Howard had one of his best games of the season after taking a short injury break. His 22 points, 14 rebounds and one block don't fully express just how thoroughly he dominated the paint on both ends of the floor.
3. Sunday's Best
Kevin Durant, Thunder: Winning in the Rose Garden isn't easy, but having KD on your side helps. The West leaders count on Durant's 33-point reliability, especially when Russell Westbrook goes 5-for-21 and Kevin Martin misses all five of his 3-point attempts.
4. Sunday's Worst
Raptors bench: A Tribe Called Bench, they ain't. Quincy Acy, Kyle Lowry, Alan Anderson and Terrence Ross combined to shoot 2-for-19 en route to five points in Toronto's 107-96 home loss to Milwaukee.
5. NBA Video Channel
6. Tweet Of The Night
7. Quote Of The Night
"I usually do it sometimes just to get some clarity in my life and just spiritual reasons. I'm done now. I can't do it no more. I surrender."
-- Knicks forward Carmelo Anthony, explaining a fast in which he hadn't eaten any meats or carbs in 15 days, but planned to get a steak after the Knicks' 100-87 win over New Orleans.
8. KD For 33
9. Stat Check
Tim Duncan had seven blocked shots and three steals in San Antonio's win over Minnesota on Sunday, tying his highest total of steals-plus-blocks in any game in his NBA career. He also had 10 in two other regular-season games (once in 1999, once in 2003) and once in the Finals (in 2003 against the Nets).See more from Elias.
10. Dunk Of The Night
MVP: Kevin Durant. On a night when Russell Westbrook shot five of 21 and the Thunder were down two starters, Durant's steady hand produced 33 points. Every one of them was needed in yet another close game at the Rose Garden.
X factor: It was an evening of interesting matchups. Neither team's combustible point guards shot well, but the small forwards did not disappoint. KD was KD and Nic Batum continues to make his All-Star case.
Defining moment: The Blazers were 11-2 in games decided by six points or fewer. It seemed as if they might keep the magic alive, until LaMarcus Aldridge airballed a late jumper in isolation.
MVP: Andre Miller. The catalyst in his team's furious 37-18 fourth-quarter charge, Miller had eight points, five assists, and two steals in the game's final stanza.
X factor: Turnovers. Golden State shot 51.8 percent from the field and made 13 of 24 3-pointers in racking up an easy 105 points. Their 18 giveaways made the difference, though, allowing the incendiary Denver transition attack countless opportunities for easy buckets.
Defining moment: Miller intercepted a lazy Steph Curry pass and flew down the floor, finding Kenneth Faried for an easy dunk that put Denver up 13 with 3:33 left in the game. That, basically, was the fourth quarter in a nutshell.