With Shaquille O'Neal's shadow literally cast over the court from his front-row seat at Staples Center, it was an opportunity for Dwight Howard to stand up and show greater stature as a Laker than he has so far.
Howard didn't have his prettiest game ever, but he put forth just the kind of effort for which his teammates and Lakers coaches have been hoping.
It was enough to get the Lakers a valuable 91-85 victory over the Phoenix Suns on Tuesday night - helping make up for Kobe Bryant's four-point, eight-turnover output.
Howard tested the limits of his sore shoulder, creaky back and decreased confidence and wound up with 19 points, 18 rebounds and two blocks. Howard's defense was the key to everything for the Lakers.
He was huffing and puffing in the final minutes because he was going so hard on a consistent basis, including setting firmer screens and moving faster on pick-and-roll plays with Steve Nash - which Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni said would continue to be tried because it logically should be "the staple of what we do."
Nash missed an open Howard once, but a minute later got it to him for a wide-open dunk and an 85-77 Lakers lead with 3:41 left.
Howard showed up without the headband he'd been wearing almost all season with the Lakers. (Howard wasn't allowed to wear one per Orlando Magic team policy, so he was excited to wear one with the Lakers.)
Howard was leery of coming to the Lakers because he didn't want to follow in O'Neal's Orlando-to-Los Angeles footsteps. O'Neal has said his frequent criticism of Howard is meant to inspire him to fulfill his potential.
Metta World Peace (17 points) and Antawn Jamison (19) helped start the fourth quarter well while Howard rested, and the Lakers improved to 25-38.
O'Neal, meanwhile, had former rival Bryant laughing and yelling out to O'Neal by faux-kissing the guy next to him. O'Neal also left the court in the fourth quarter with actor Will Ferrell, dressed as a Staples Center security officer, pretending to have handcuffed him.
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