It was four days in a season that at times has felt four years long. But amid the festivities of All-Star weekend in Houston last month, Dwight Howard says he found time to make some very important changes.
“I’m a big thinker,” Howard said during a wide-ranging, candid interview after the Los Angeles Lakers practiced Saturday afternoon. “So I just stayed in the hotel and thought about the first half of the season and how I could do better for our team.
“And I just told myself, ‘I’m going to commit myself to being better for the second half of the season.’ ”
That meant cutting sugar completely out of his diet so he could get into the kind of shape he needed to be in to be the Lakers’ defensive anchor and run coach Mike D’Antoni’s pick-and-roll sets.
That meant acknowledging that he was trying to be somebody he wasn’t the first half of the season.
And, yes, it meant admitting to himself that playing alongside the hard-driving Kobe Bryant was something that he needed both personally and professionally.
“It’s going to make me a better man and a better player from watching Kobe,” Howard said.
Playing in Los Angeles, for a franchise with expectations as high as the Lakers, is “a lot different,” Howard said.
“Besides just the expectations,” he said. “In games, I mess up and there’s somebody in the crowd saying something and I’m ready to snap at ’em. That’s not what we’re supposed to do.
“But you look at a guy like Kobe and he doesn’t care about nothing but going out there and playing hard. That’s a lesson a lot of us have to learn — especially young guys.”
Howard said he and Bryant always have had a good relationship, but it’s deepened this season, particularly since the All-Star break.
“I told him [Bryant]: ‘I’m afraid to miss. When I get out there, I don’t want to miss, and I end up missing.’ And he was like: ‘You know what? Shoot 1,000 jumpshots a day. You’re going to miss a lot of those shots. But that’s OK. Because you’re teaching yourself it’s OK to miss.’
“Now I see it. He gets out there and he might miss a couple 3s, but then he’ll make nine in a row. You see that and it just kind of gives you more inspiration.”
Howard and Bryant are coming off their best two games as Lakers, with the latter becoming the first Laker since Jerry West in 1970 to post back-to-back 40-point, 10-assist games in wins against New Orleans and Toronto, respectively. Howard has dominated defensively while averaging 22 points, 14 rebounds and 4.5 blocks.
In nine games since the All-Star break, Howard is averaging 15.4 points, 14.1 rebounds and 2.4 blocks a game. Moreover, his energy and attitude seem markedly different.
“He jumped three or four times after one ball,” D’Antoni said of Howard’s defensive performance Friday night, when he blocked five shots and intimidated several Raptors. “His conditioning didn’t allow him to do that [before].
“I think he was harshly judged because he wasn’t 100 percent. There’s all kind of little factors, but the further away he gets away from the [back] operation, the better he will be.”
Whatever the case, Los Angeles (32-31) will take it. With Utah’s loss Saturday night to the Knicks, the Lakers are now tied with the Jazz for the eighth and final Western Conference playoff berth.
“When I first [came to L.A.], I wanted to come here and not talk to anybody and act completely different,” Howard said. “But that’s not who I am. I’ve never been that way. I shouldn’t ever shut myself off to the world. I don’t think that’s good for the team or for me and what I want to accomplish in life.
“I thought about it and said, ‘No, I can’t change. I’ve got to mature in certain areas,’ and I think I have. But I can’t change who I am.”
When did that change take place?
“At the All-Star break,” Howard said. “I just thought about what we’re trying to accomplish as a team and I really want to win a championship. That’s the reason why I’m in LA.”