HANG TIME WEST – The take-away moment Sunday night for the Lakers and their fans came with 1:06 remaining in the first half against the Kings in Los Angeles. Kobe Bryant missed a jumper, Dwight Howard went around the faux box out by DeMarcus Cousins, tipped the offensive rebound in while being fouled, crashed to the ground on his left side, and finished the three-point play.
It was all right there. Howard moving well, Howard able to play physical, Howard popping back up after hitting the court hard. Even Howard making the free throw.
For all the attention that will go to the highlight-reel lobs he finished and the final line of 19 points, 12 rebounds and four blocks in 33 minutes, numbers the Lakers will take when he is at full speed, none of it really mattered as Howard made his combination return from back surgery and his L.A. debut in the sixth exhibition game. It’s not exactly news for anyone to get behind the Kings defense for one thing, and stats in a preseason matchup mean even less.
The real headline is that Howard moved well in his first game since April 7 as a member of the Magic, showing strength and agility but no sign of the herniated disc that ended his 2011-12 early and led to April 20 surgery. And while he appeared winded at times, 33 minutes was a very good workout for a return to action in a sign he will be close to, if not at, 100 percent when the Lakers open the regular season Oct. 30 against the Mavericks. Coach Mike Brown, in another important signal, was so convinced of the direction of Howard’s recovery that he sent Howard out to finish the game with the rest of the starters when keeping Howard on the bench would have been understandable caution.
The Kings completed the 99-92 victory, improving to 4-1 while dropping the Lakers to 0-6 with two more chances for Howard to develop a rhythm with his new team before Dallas comes to Staples Center. The next benchmark for L.A. comes Monday as the medical staff does an important day-after check to see how the back responded to the game and potential of stiffening up over night, followed by Wednesday against the Clippers in Los Angeles and a night later the Kings again in San Diego in the preseason finale.
Sunday against Sacramento was just a start, but it was a meaningful start. Howard looked strong beyond the stats and what will get the most fanfare on the highlights. He looked on his way to being really ready.