Judging by the frenzied Twitter response to Wednesday night’s disappointing 96-92 defeat by a short-handed Atlanta Hawks, I wasn’t the only member of Lakers Nation concerned over the Lakers’ playoff hopes when Kobe Bryant hit the floor. Without belaboring whether Hawks guard Dahntay Jones intended to injure Bryant or not, the replay footage brought upon an absolutely deafening silence (likely in all of our homes), as the team seems to have been ‘snake-bitten’ (if you will) by one hurdle after another.
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Again, regardless of your personal feelings about the incident, the Lakers are now faced with their toughest challenge of an already tumultuous season, moving forward. Put simply, while you’d hope Bryant’s numbers and statistics can be replaced or somehow supplemented, the looming question remains: How do you replace the impact of a guy with as much “will” as Kobe Bryant?
For the record, the Lakers have just released an official update to the initial “out indefinitely” response to Bryant’s immediate availability. The results of the MRI were negative (no signs of fracture), but the visual evidence courtesy of Vanessa Bryant’s Instagram feed was even more disturbing than the initial fall. Per Mike Bresnahan of the Los Angeles Times:
Kobe will be a game-time decision. (Jodie) Meeks starts in his place if he can’t go.”
Love him or hate him for his style or manner by which he leads, Bryant’s ‘will’ has been this team’s saving grace, and seemed to have finally united the locker room in recent weeks. The oft-discussed relationship between Bryant and Howard is no longer the topic of every single ESPN “Breaking News” update, as the two have found a budding chemistry that can only come from having the time and desire to grow comfortable with one another on the court.
With Bryant’s status being in serious jeopardy for tonight’s game, I believe Dwight Howard’s body will finally permit him to step into the limelight and embrace the responsibility. I’m certain Mitch Kupchak and Lakers’ management had that in mind when initially developing such a talent-laden roster. While I’ve been as pleasantly surprised by Bryant’s incredible as anyone else, privately, I’ve longed for the other ‘stars’ to step into the forefront and ‘shoulder’ more of the load on a much more consistent basis. Outside of Wednesday’s game, where the Lakers settled for far too many jump-shots and 3-pointers (8-29 from beyond the arc as a team), Howard’s productivity and activity on both ends of the court have been noticeably improved since the All Star break. It should be noted that he’s also looked even stronger and exhibited more stamina since taking it upon himself to alter his diet and increase his workout and conditioning regiment beyond what is being asked by the team.
Part of that could certainly be attributed to the players growing more comfortable and familiar with one another, but I’d venture to say Howard’s physical improvement played an even larger role than we may have realized. Where opponents are continuing to target the shoulder and back with their contact, Howard does not seem to be nearly as affected by the blows. What were once awkward, almost painful-looking, layup attempts, are now emphatic dunks. Much of the same improvement has been seen on the defensive end, where Howard has blocked 26 shots over his past nine games (2.9 per).
Scrutinized by the media to no end, and (in retrospect) possibly unfairly criticized by fans given the reality of his physical limitations, I actually have to commend Howard for not only enduring, but for even persevering in the face of adversity. One way to erase all remaining hesitation from the most avid and loyal fan base in the league would be to step forward and embrace the challenge of being even more of a leader while Bryant and Gasol work themselves back from injury. Of course, there’s always the chance Bryant will fight through the injury and play tonight, but the Lakers should utilize the next few games to lean on Howard regardless. Not only would I would much prefer to see a rested and healthy Bryant for the final stretch, I would also like to explore just how effective an engaged and motivated Howard can be on the offensive end.
I’m not sure if you’ve noticed, but Howard and Nash are no longer having the pick-and-roll issues they once had. It seems that each player has made the necessary adjustments in that Howard is moving far more fluidly and with a purpose, while Nash has altered where he delivers the pass in order to make it more comfortable. Aside from potentially losing Bryant, Wednesday night’s game was disappointing for additional reasons. The team reverted to strictly running isolation sets for the majority of the second half, all but abandoning the pick-and-roll and the post altogether.
Following the game, Coach D’Antoni snapped at John Ireland (ESPN LA) for asking about the decision to abandon the style of play that had led to much of the team’s recent success, but I think the question was entirely fair. It’s one thing to fire up a ton of 3’s on a night where things are falling, but on a night where the team is 8-29 from that distance, I’d like to think there were better shots available. Later in the media session, D’Antoni offered the excuse of the Hawks’ defensive strategy playing a role in leading to so many looks from distance, but I am not entirely buying this.
Not only were the Hawks without their starting center (Zaza Pachulia), but they were also missing forward Josh Smith. Quite frankly, there is absolutely no excuse for Howard to only have nine shot attempts (only shot three free throws) when facing Johan Petro and Ivan Johnson. Especially when he’s aggressive and actively establishing position, which he has been. Especially, when he’s giving you his ‘all’ on the defensive end and backboards, which he has been as well. I’m not pointing the finger at Metta World Peace, as there were plenty of culprits, but MWP cannot have the same amount of 3-pt attempts (2-9 last night) as Howard has total shot attempts.
Again, I am absolutely not trying to single MWP out, rather, I am merely using the stat as an example. In fairness, the true responsibility lies within the free-wheeling philosophy. I’m all for the “ball finds energy” mentality, but certain basic basketball principles should also be reinforced along with it. Just because you are open, that should not be the sole determining prerequisite of whether to shoot or not. Whether the defense is ‘giving’ you a shot, at some point you’d like to see this team impose their will on an opponent, rather than simply accepting whatever strategy the opposition throws at you. I’d like to see these Lakers actually utilize some of the advantages they have, rather than always permitting the other team to control the flow. The Pacers are one of the top defensive teams in the league, as they only surrender 89.7 points per game (2nd). Roy Hibbert will be Howard’s biggest test since re-establishing his physical dominance, but if these Lakers are going to qualify for the playoffs, let alone advance, they’ll need Dwight to consistently dominate his opponent. For that to take place, the Lakers must find balance in their attack.
Again, we know Bryant is a warrior, and will literally stop at nothing to ensure this team’s success. In this case, with the playoffs in mind, I would much prefer that this team rally around the adversity (yet again), and prove to themselves they can be successful without always relying upon a herculean effort from Bryant. If ever there were a time for Howard to play the role of ‘Superman’, that time is now.
*Artwork courtesy of #Art117. You may find him on Instagram at RP_Swagger or here.