EL SEGUNDO, Calif. — Dwight Howard believes.
No Kobe Bryant. No Steve Blake. Almost assuredly no Jodie Meeks. And most likely no Steve Nash.
No matter. Howard says he still believes.
“We have total confidence that we can come back and win this series, and we believe in each other,” Howard said following Friday’s workout when the Los Angeles Lakers learned of their worsening injury woes. “We worked too hard to get in the playoffs. We had to fight to get in and we’re not going to give up just because we’re down and have a lot of guys that are injured.”
The Lakers’ rickety season is once again on the brink Friday night as their first-round playoff series with the San Antonio Spurs moves to the Staples Center. With the Spurs up 2-0, it’s do-or-die for a limping Lakers team that could be forced to start a backcourt of two third-team, 2011 second-round draft picks in Darius Morris and Andrew Goudelock.
While Nash told reporters Thursday that his fingers are crossed that two epidural shots to his back will work in time to allow him to play in Game 3 (10:30 p.m. ET, ESPN), Howard was working overtime with assistant coach Chuck Person with a helping hand from general manager Mitch Kupchak, a pretty good post player in his day with the Showtime Lakers.
It’ll be curtains for these slow-time Lakers unless the 6-foot-11, 265-pound Howard, once upon a time referred to as Superman, and his 7-foot frontcourt mate Pau Gasol, can assert their will on the Spurs and lift their less well-known teammates back into the series.
“Again, it is what it is,” Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni said of the bleak injury situation. “It’s not what anybody wishes for, but at the same time we need to dominate inside and that’s Pau and Dwight. So it’s a big load for Pau and Dwight. At the same time, that’s how we’re going to have to do it.”
Howard, praised for his dominant play in the final two games of the regular season after Kobe went down to get the Lakers in the playoffs, has taken critical shots for not getting it done in the opening two games in San Antonio. He’s averaged 18.0 ppg, 12.0 rpg and five fouls per game.
Everybody wants to see Howard rise to the occasion, to be a force that takes games away from the opponent. He took criticism for not being that dominant force in Game 2, scoring 16 points — same as Blake as well as the Spurs’ Kahwi Leonard and Tim Duncan — with nine rebounds, four blocks and five fouls when the Lakers had chances to keep the game close.
For Gasol, just 5-for-14 from the floor in Game 2, these could be his final games as a Laker. Well into the luxury tax next season, the organization will have to decide what to do with the player who is due $19.3 million next season and was all but traded to New Orleans last offseason before the blockbuster deal for Chris Paul was vetoed by commissioner David Stern.
Of course, Howard’s future is just as unsettled, although his future is at least in his own hands. The Lakers are desperate to sign him to a max deal this summer and make him the cornerstone of the franchise upon Bryant’s eventual retirement.
For now, it’s all about Game 3 and if Howard, reduced to 14th in this season’s voting for Defensive Player of the Year, and Gasol can play like the superstars their salaries say they are, and get L.A. a win.
“We just got to play,” Howard said. “We can’t control anybody’s injuries. We can’t control nothing but how hard we go out there and play. Me and Pau are going to do the best we can for this team.”