Updated: January 14, 2013, 9:03 AM ET

1. Howard Stepping Into Anchorman Role

By J.A. Adande
ESPN.com

LOS ANGELES -- The Los Angeles Lakers didn't just get Dwight Howard back, they got the Dwight Howard they want and need back.

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.

Howard-Bryant
AP Photo/Mark J. TerrillDwight Howard and Kobe, working on their timing.

"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."


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