By Ben Golliver
The Lakers crushed the Nuggets 122-103 at Staples Center on Friday night, improving to 3-3 under new coach Mike D'Antoni and 8-8 on the season.
• It goes without saying the Lakers are the most talented team sitting at .500 or worse at the one-month mark of the season. Nobody else has dealt with as much drama or underachieved so severely. The Lakers won't be .500 for much longer, but at least for now they do possess one prototypical attribute of a .500 team: their quality of play can swing wildly on a night-to-night basis.
The pendulum nearly broke after this one, given how easily the points piled up and how light the mood was just 48 hours after the Lakers crashed and burned in a home loss to the Pacers on Tuesday, scoring just 77 points and giving up a game-winning runner at the buzzer to George Hill.
Dwight Howard isn't always the cause for the Lakers' uneven quality of play, but the Lakers looked in top shape Friday and it had a lot to do with a dominant performance from their All-Star center. His numbers were his best of the season -- 28 points, a season-high 20 rebounds, three blocks, and 12-for-16 shooting -- and he dictated the game's terms with 16 first-quarter points. The Nuggets had to adjust so heavily to stop him that it was field day time for the rest of the Lakers -- 33 points for Antawn Jamison; 21 points for Jodie Meeks; you get the picture. Lakers not named Kobe Bryant scored 108 points. That should be a win 10 times out of 10, especially at home with two days of rest against an opponent on the second night of a back-to-back.
• This second point was going to be a simple one all the way up until the game's final 10 seconds. This one was going to read: Howard just didn't mess around at all, attempting 14 of his first 15 attempts from the paint. The lone exception, until the game's closing minute, was a throwaway halftime heave from behind midcourt. That kind of low-post, inside-the-paint consistency usually produces good things, assuming Howard is under control, and he was on Friday.
Howard is a well-known goof, though, and he decided to mess around, shooting (and making) a three-pointer with nine-seconds left and the Lakers leading by 16 points. He celebrated the shot by holding his release and running back down the court, even as the Nuggets hadn't really defended the possession. Once the game ended, he chest-bumped and woofed with his teammates on the sideline.
Already this season, the Magic got upset at Bulls center Joakim Noah for shooting a late three in an attempt to win free burgers for fans. Noah was admonished by coach Tom Thibodeau for his action. Then, weeks later, Blazers rookie guard Damian Lillard tossed in an uncontested garbage time basket against the Bulls, drawing the wrath of Noah and teammate Taj Gibson, who agreed he had broken the game's unwritten rule governing unnecessary shots during games that are already decided.
Here, Howard clearly crossed the line too, rubbing a loss into his opponent's face when it wasn't necessary. Given what he, and his team, have been through over the last six months, it's understandable that a little glee would be a higher priority than perfect decorum. He might get a pass in this instance, we'll see, but he can't make a habit of this without someone objecting.
Footnote: The Orange County Register noted that this was just the second three-pointer of his career and the first he's made in more than five years.
No further analysis needed really. Check out the cut over Howard's left eye at right, thanks to Twitter star @CJZero. Howard actually lacerated his left eyelid during the second quarter, departing for the locker room with the Lakers trainer to receive attention. Howard wasn't gone long and he still managed to play 32 minutes. His absence wasn't a major scare, by any stretch, and the Lakers were only -1 during the four-plus minutes he missed. The quick pause in his performance, though, served as a reminder of just how overwhelming he can be when he plays to his full capabilities. Howard's had his share of big nights -- a sparkling preseason debut, 33 points and 14 rebounds against the Blazers, 23 points and 18 rebounds against DeMarcus Cousins and the Kings, 28 points and 13 rebounds against the Rockets -- but this was clearly his best play under D'Antoni and, by extension, the best taste of what could be to come once Steve Nash returns.