The L.A. Lakers beat the Milwaukee Bucks for a few reasons on Tuesday. Kobe Bryant played as well as he has all season on offense, and for a change turned it up on defense, holding Brandon Jennings (who was named the Eastern Conference Player of the Week on Monday) to 12 points on 4-14 shooting. But most importantly, the Lakers got a fourth straight impressive game from Dwight Howard, who appears to be this team's talisman.
Howard sprung for 31 points and 16 rebounds. It was his fourth straight double-double, his second overall 30-point game of the season, and his 12th game with at least 15 rebounds. The Lakers won their second straight game, both of which were with Howard available but with Pau Gasol on the bench.
Whether Gasol's presence (or lack thereof) impacts Howard's play is a question for another day. It's become clear that the inverse -- that Howard has affected Pau's game negatively -- is true, but there's nothing about Howard that should render him less useful when Gasol plays. The samples are too small to give a real answer. But regardless of Pau's presence, there's no question that Howard has been playing better of late. His last awful game (by the standards to which Dwight is judged based on his body of work) was New Year's Day when the Sixers' unspectacular frontcourt ran him ragged.
Kobe's getting plenty of deserved credit for Tuesday's win, but Bryant and Steve Nash sat for the first half of the fourth quarter as the Lakers repelled the Bucks' push. Defense was the name of the game in that quarter as Milwaukee shot just 6-25. Within the first few minutes of the quarter, an L.A. lineup of Howard, Antawn Jamison, Metta World Peace, Darius Morris and Chris Duhon bolstered the Lakers' lead by seven points. By the time Kobe and Nash came back in midway through the quarter, that odd Lakers' unit led by Howard had gotten the lead into double digits.
That's the sort of impact Dwight needs to have night in, night out and against better teams than average Milwaukee and on the road. Howard doesn't seem to be suffering any ill effects from his torn labrum, and the greater concern would appear to be whether his surgically repaired back is finally in game shape. Are the last four games a fluke, or is Howard going to be a beast from here on out? That's obviously a critical question for a Lakers team that still has little room for error. L.A. needs to win 10 of its next 16 to hit .500 by the All-Star Break with some tough games coming up, including a match with the Heat on Thursday.
That game will be another important test for Howard regardless of how the team fares. Miami has struggled mightily to keep opponents off of the glass, and Howard has been rebounding out of his mind. If Dwight can test Miami's defense by wreaking havoc on the offensive glass and limit the Heat's offensive second chances, L.A. has a shot. Needless to say, a win over the defending champs would be a nice relief and confidence boost for those rooting for the Lakers' revival.