- Israel Gutierrez, ESPN Staff Writer
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The Lakers' deficit was 10 with just over a minute to go, so there wasn't even a hint of a celebratory reaction. That is, until Steve Nash, almost as if reminding himself to complete a chore he'd forgotten, darted over and slapped Howard on the backside before his free throw attempt.
After the game, the normally pleasant Mike D'Antoni looked miserable, answering questions outside the visiting locker room without a hint of his more familiar demeanor.
Inside the locker room, no one outside of Antawn Jamison spoke above a whisper, with Howard looking the most somber of them all, slouched in front of his locker, the only smile coming at the end of an interview with members from a Puerto Rican media outlet.
This, mind you, is coming from a team that, even with the loss to Miami, has won seven of its past 10 games despite having just completed its longest road trip of the season and despite missing either Pau Gasol or Howard in the past six. (Side note: If the Lakers win seven of every 10 from here on out, that would give them 45 wins and a solid shot at a playoff spot.)
There's a force dragging this Lakers team down at the moment -- the very moment when they need to be rising up above all the doubt.
Call it what you will: the pressure to be great, the disappointment of being disappointing, the inability to deal with change and sacrifice.
Whatever you call it, the Lakers have been failing at it, and if it continues, it'll keep them out of the playoffs and make them one of the biggest busts in the history of sports.
"I think it's just been disappointing and draining to try to find it with all the change and the injuries and all that stuff," Nash said. "It's not an excuse, it's just the truth. We've had a lot of starts and stops and ups and downs."
Of course, there's more to winning basketball than smiles and spirit, but if there's anyone that can change the disposition of this team of somber souls, it's Howard.
Since his arrival, he's been bombarded with standards he's expected to meet despite still recovering from offseason back surgery and adding a significant and painful shoulder injury to it.
But the Lakers' recovery requires more from Howard than just his presence. It requires moments of dominance, especially with Gasol out.
He's clearly sulking, whether it's on the court, after games, during interviews or anywhere else. He's nothing like the Howard the league grew to appreciate in his days with Orlando, when he took over for Shaquille O'Neal as the NBA's largest, most lovable kid.
But being that guy is critical to the Lakers' long-term success.
"He's got to be himself," Jamison said. "We're not going to go anywhere without him."
Has Howard been himself this season?
"Last couple games, no," Jamison said. "But we are his teammates, and we're supposed to be there for one another. And when we see somebody that's down, or whatever's going on, we have to be there for them.
"But for us, we're not going to accomplish anything without him. It really boils down to that. When he's out there joking and laughing and trying to dunk on people and not worrying about other things, we are a great team. But when he's out there not smiling and not trying to grab things off the top of the roof, it's a little difficult.
"But Dwight's going to be fine."
That last statement is difficult to believe -- at least based on what we've seen of late.
His verbal battles with Bryant, combined with his shoulder pain, have dragged Howard down to a low point we've never seen from him before -- even lower than last season, when severe pain back and clashes with former coach Stan Van Gundy led to all sorts of drama.
And it doesn't help that Howard still isn't pleased with how he's being used on the floor when he does play.
All he offered on the subject of his touches after his 15-point, 9-rebound, 2-block effort in 41 minutes was a drab response: "I don't wanna talk about it."
That's where Howard needs to take responsibility for his own happiness.
No, this Lakers' "super team" is nothing like the one built in Miami in 2010. But these Lakers, particularly Howard, can still learn from that group of players who made severe sacrifices.
Howard has shown the ability to put up huge numbers with the Lakers, even though he's not being utilized the way he's accustomed to. So there's no question he can adjust -- if he wants to.
"It'll have negative consequences for our team if we're all longing to play the way we've always played," said Nash, who has made the switch from primary distributor to a more aggressive scorer of late when Kobe Bryant is in assist mode. "We have to find a way to play together.
"I think we'd like to get him in the pick-and-roll more. That's how he was really good in Orlando, he'd pick and then they'd swing and put it into him, so he can get deeper catches and the help side a more difficult time coming to him. But I don't know, it's been difficult to really get him into that game, running into pick-and-rolls, diving and looking for the ball. We haven't really found that rhythm from him yet."
Kobe hasn't gotten consumed by this overly melancholy tone around the Lakers. In fact, he's a fan of it.
"It's a competitive one, it's an edgy one," Bryant said after answering question after question about LeBron James' amazingly efficient play of late. "It's a spirit of, 'F--- this, we're going to get this done,' type of attitude. It's confrontational. I think that's why we've been playing well when we have been playing well."
The Lakers, as opposed to teams like the Heat and Thunder, aren't the most athletic group, which requires them to be more of a half-court team that limits turnovers and rebounds well. That would seem to play to Howard's strengths.
Now, if they can find a way to make that happen, maybe the big fella will crack a smile every once in a while.
"I think it's just a matter of him getting used to different angles and different spots on the floor where he's going to be," Bryant said. "And just anchoring us defensively. He's one of the best defensive players this game has seen. If he can provide that for us, obviously it would be a big boost."
That last part almost goes without saying. When Howard is playing spirited basketball, the defensive end comes naturally for him. His intimidating presence was near non-existent in Miami on Sunday, and his personality was absent.
That's difficult to accept when you consider the Lakers' results lately have actually been admirable. Outside of the letdown in Phoenix, L.A.'s two other losses in their past 10 games have come against a smoking hot Celtics team and an even more scorching LeBron. And it includes wins over the Thunder and Nets.
But watching Howard would provide no indication that the Lakers are, as Nash so eloquently phrased it, "still sputtering in a positive direction."
That's just not Dwight.
"He's going to have to, and I have all the confidence in the world that eventually he'll get back to himself," Jamison said. "We've got two games before the All-Star break. Being away from each other can clear up a lot of things."
Maybe that'll be the trick. Because this fog hanging over the Lakers has to be lifted if they're ever going to see the finish line -- a finish line that doesn't appear on April 17.
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