Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Lakers Need Monster Performance From Dwight Howard

So what are we supposed to do now? Believe in him, pull for him to have a fine performance and play like the Superman he once was in Disney World before migrating to Disneyland? If the issue was whether he was burnt out from the Epcot Experiment and just wanted to experience a California Adventure, it's because the Los Angeles Lakers are usually in contention to win a championship.

It's hard to make a case that either he desperately joined the Lakers to flee the chaos in Orlando, but whatever the reasoning was behind Howard's trade, he's a factor for the Lakers and must have a monster performance in Game 2 Wednesday night in San Antonio. So this is a chance for Howard to really lead the Lakers to a playoff series win, without the services of Kobe Bryant because of a torn Achilles tendon that he suffered during a regular-season win against Golden State. And now Howard is the most important player for the Lakers in these playoffs.

If they can somehow pound the ball inside they can easily tie this series, despite the Spurs' swarming defenders that forced Howard to turn the ball over. Yet Howard's ability to execute underneath the basket remains a question and, after a loss in Game 1 of the playoff opener, it raises concern about whether he can hold on to the ball, let alone adjust the way he attacks in the post or sets rock-solid screens to create space for himself to dominate the paint and frustrate a pesky Spurs defense.

If the Buss family is smart, no matter how the season ends, they won't let Howard walk at the end of the season. If everything goes right, the Lakers will sign him to an enormous deal and he will keep on a purple and gold uniform. Assuming that he's come to L.A. to be the star of the post-Kobe era, he's indeed the one the Lakers will count on when the going gets tough, like now. He pretty much has been aggressive in a fierce battle against the veteran Tim Duncan.

It's about one big man trying to outdo the other. It's about the strongest and smartest, and with that in mind, Howard would have to stand up to the ageless and more assertive Duncan. If so, the Lakers could likely travel back to L.A. with a victory in the books, but Howard will have to play dominant and like a beast, one we've never seen, one that's not commonplace, one that convinces us he can carry the weight on his shoulders without his pal Kobe.

There's much about Howard that is significant, striking and perceptible, so it would only be wise to assume that he's more than just a 6-foot-11 big man with size and superhero physique. He is truly one of the funniest guys in the game. Known for his antics and whimsical nature, he'd probably be a damn good standup comedian and could sell out the Laugh Factory. He's that funny and humorous, but on Wednesday in a game that will likely dictate the nature of this series, he will need to wipe away his captivating smile and do the impression of a ferocious animal.

Howard needs to put aside the playfulness and be for real. More than that, he's now a willing leader who is not backing down from the challenge and has embraced his role in Bryant's absence. It might come down to Howard knocking down two free throws to clinch in the final minutes of a pivotal game. It might come down to him blocking and corralling what could have been a game-winning shot. It might come down to him putting back a missed shot or grabbing that crucial rebound, which could change the perspective of the game.

There is zero chance that the Lakers, a team that relies heavily on a big man in the pursuit of their NBA titles, would survive without a big game from Howard. He believes the Lakers can surprise the world -- very dangerous -- in these playoffs. It's one thing to dream, but another thing to turn it into reality. Without Kobe, the Lakers have no choice but to attack the rim with Howard's size and power. And lately, he's been living up to his nickname, rightfully so. He's been playing like Superman, not Superless Howard. He's been playing like an untamed giant, despite his silly passes and poor handling of the ball and the number of turnovers he's committed in the previous game. That can make this Lakers team dangerous.

The Lakers need his presence, his mental toughness and another dominant performance, without any mistakes. That means he can't account for 10 of the Lakers' 18 turnovers. But amazingly, after waiting and waiting, he has been everything the Lakers expected from him. Howard, a three-time Defensive Player of the Year, loves it in Los Angeles, but who knows if he'll stay? That doesn't matter at the moment, when there's much on the line in these playoffs and plenty to focus on. What we do know is that he's a different player since Bryant went down.

What we do know is that Howard is not only a defensive force but also a beast in the interior. The Lakers are a better team when he's healthy and when he plays like the Lakers are his team. Furthermore, he's the league's best rebounder, but he needs to continue to play like that all the time and cannot take nights off. The dominance he's shown is what the Lakers had in mind. He's playing with more energy and pizzazz. He's playing with a different mentality, the Dwight Howard that no one has seen much.

He's proving that he fits in well, and he's merely the key piece to make a deep playoff run. If he does become the most dominant center in the NBA, to follow Shaquille O'Neil, a Laker legend, maybe folks are going to perceive him as a likable superstar and not a polarizing diva who has been known for his wishy-washy, flaky mannerism.

This game will determinate what he's made of.