That’s not to say they’ve morphed into the juggernaut many predicted back in October. Such talk would certainly be premature. But it’s safe to assume their surge has grabbed the attention of the entire league, much less the Pacific Division.
The Golden State Warriors are now just two games ahead of the Lakers, a gap that doesn’t feel impossible to close. Were that the case, it could set the stage for a Hallway Series between the current No. 3 seed Clippers and the Lakers. And that would be an exceptionally fun first-round matchup for members of the Kings to watch from home.
Here’s a look at what’s doing for each team.
LOS ANGELES LAKERS (34-31)
Wait, hold on a sec. Just want to make sure Jacque Vaughn isn’t sending Dwight Howard to the line one more time before I start writing.
You’ll forgive a little wariness after Howard’s long-awaited return to Orlando, which began as a full-throated Howard hatefest but devolved into a lather-rinse-repeat parade to the free-throw line for the former Orlando star.
Vaughn, whose Hack-a-Howard tactics in the first meeting between the teams Dec. 2 at Staples meant 21 FTAs for Dwight, septupled down on the strategy Tuesday at Amway. He fouled Howard early, he fouled Howard late. He fouled him when the game was close, and when the Lakers were up by double digits.
In the end, Howard tied his own NBA record with 39 attempts in LA’s 106-97 win.
LOOKING FOR LAKERS TICKETS? LOOK NO FURTHER
More important than the record number of takes were Howard’s number of makes – 25 in all, including a 23-for-30 run after a 2-for-9 start. Howard hit eight of the first 10 tries off intentional fouls, and 10-of-12 in the fourth quarter. One of the worst free throw shooters in basketball suddenly morphed into something straight out of a Tom Amberry video (relatively speaking, at least).
In a season serving as yet another referendum on Howard’s mental fortitude, for one night at least he slayed one of his biggest dragons in a hostile environment en route to 39 points, 16 rebounds and three blocks.
“I missed a lot of free throws, but then I made a lot of free throws,” he told the media following the game. “I think all this stuff was good for me.”
For a guy who has spent most of his career trying to please others, there may have been something cathartic about returning to a city where, no matter what he said or did, most were still going to boo. “I thought that was the best thing for me to come in here and really learn how to block a lot of stuff out and play and not allow it to affect me,” he said. “That’s been big all season to where I would hit a crowd and get up there and brick. It was good for me. I matured as a player and person. I’m happy. I’m happy we won the game.”