With six minutes and 46 seconds remaining in last Wednesday’s game versus the Hornets, a dunk by Robin Lopez put his team 14 points ahead of the Los Angeles Lakers. It was the 102nd point scored by New Orleans. It also was the last time they would get a bucket until the end of the contest.
The incredible shutdown applied by the Purple and Gold enabled a 20-0 run that would fuel one of the most memorables comeback victories in recent years. Not merely coincidentally, following Lopez’ dunk, Dwight Howard started to perform like his old self at the defensive end, being involved in some manner in every failed offensive attempt by the struggling Hornets.
While Kobe Bryant and Jodie Meeks were taking care of business scoring-wise, being responsible for 30 of the Lakers 33 points in the 4th quarter, “D12″ took over the paint and showed how a center is supposed to defend the pick-and-roll, which was heavily utilized by the opposing team. And despite missing a free-throw, Howard made his presence felt in the offense by setting solid screens to Bryant, giving the Mamba clearer paths to either get a basket or an assist.
It all started by Howard pressuring Lopez underneath the rim, forcing the missed shot and securing the rebound for the Lakers. Dwight also made a good job of raising his arms to constantly pressure the ball-handler in the pick-and-roll sets. By doing that, he disrupted guards Greivis Vasquez and Eric Gordon’s rhythms, rushed their decisions and altered their shots, leading to a bad pass and some missed attempts at the basket.
With a little under five minutes left, Ryan Anderson, instead of going for the three-point shot like he usually does, decided to dribble inside the paint against Metta World Peace. Even though he was able to eventually get past “MWP”, Anderson saw himself right in front of Dwight. With no room to work with due to the Lakers’ center strong presence, the Hornets’ forward ended up taking too many steps after picking up his dribble, which translated to a travel violation, a turnover and another failed possession by the home team.
Following a layup by Bryant that cut the Hornets’ lead to five with 3:38 left, Robin Lopez took advantage of Howard mistiming his jump for the rebound and secured the basketball. But Dwight quickly redeemed himself by staying tight on Lopez and, not only forcing him to miss a dunk, but also grabbing the rebound. It led to a wide open three by Meeks which put the Lakers in an one-possession game.
When the game clock showed two minutes and 45 seconds to play in the contest, Howard picked up his fifth foul, but that didn’t stop him of being aggressive and, most importantly, highly effective on the defensive end. A few seconds later, Dwight’s solid double-team on Al-Farouq Aminu forced the basketball to go back to beyond the arc with the shotclock ticking away, leading to a missed three and another rebound for “D12″.
And then, with just 28 seconds remaining, we had a Superman sighting. In perhaps the best play of his time as a Laker until now, Howard elevated and met the 7-footer Lopez at the very top, emphatically stuffing his dunk attempt like the Dwight we were all used to see prior to the back surgery. It not only put L.A. in position to open up a four-point lead with less than 26 seconds left in the game, but it also sent the message that, on that night in New Orleans, the paint was his. Dwight Howard had decided to stick his flag underneath the basket, so if the Hornets wanted to score, they would have to get past him first. And they did not.
Game winning block.
Howard finished the game with 20 points, 15 rebounds and 4 blocks. But the best about his performance cannot be shown through stats. If the Lakers were able to win on a 20-0 run, it was due to Dwight’s great presence against the pick-and-roll and dominance of the rim for the Purple and Gold. The Hornets were not afraid of going straight at him on every possession, but “D12″ rose up to the challenge.
Howard is still not the same man who won the “Defensive Player of the Year” award on three straight seasons, but performances like the one versus New Orleans go out to prove that he’s getting his body and mind back to where they once were. Those types of efforts kindle the hope that he’s returning to the kind of shape and confidence that would allow him to become the dominating player the Lakers faithful has been expecting to see from him since his signing day.
And, if that happens, good luck finding the kryptonite.