Lakers finally need Dwight Howard

USA TODAY Sports

The Lakers are one win away from guaranteeing a chance in the playoffs, and after Dwight Howard's dominant game against the San Antonio Spurs, the Center has little to lose and more to gain now than ever.

Sergeant Horvath: I don't know. Part of me thinks the kid's right. He asks what he's done to deserve this. He wants to stay here, fine. Let's leave him and go home. But then another part of me thinks, what if by some miracle we stay, then actually make it out of here. Someday we might look back on this and decide that saving Private Ryan was the one decent thing we were able to pull out of this whole godawful, shitty mess. Like you said, Captain, maybe we do that, we all earn the right to go home.

Saving Private Ryan

One. That's the number of games the Los Angeles Lakers need to win in order to make the playoffs. Now seven games over .500 after spending the majority of the season cleaning the gutters at the bottom of the Western Conference, they've managed to push themselves back into a potential playoff run. Of course, with Kobe Bryant going down the entire narrative, focus, team, and outlook has changed. The potential of the Lakers being a force led by Bryant going into the playoffs has become smoke against the sky as the fire is now just a pile of smoldering ashes.

With Kobe at the helm there were still expectations for a team that has struggled from wire-to-wire in the season. As realistic, or unrealistic those expectations were they all but disappeared along with Bryant just a few days ago. Now, the Lakers can just go out there and play. Should they fall short, it is what it is. Now, the Lakers are playing with no weight on their shoulders, but one man has the opportunity to prove himself. Nobody expects Dwight Howard to carry the Lakers through the playoffs, the roster simply wasn't built with that in mind.

For the first time in his illustrious months-long career as a purple and gold jersey wearing center, the Lakers need Dwight Howard. Need is a word thrown around loosely, with no care as to what need actually means. The Lakers have "needed" Howard all season, no doubt, but at the end of the day there was still Kobe doing Kobe things: putting together ridiculous late game stretches, pulling miracles out of thin air, and taking over in critical situations. Whether Howard decided to come along for the ride was an option because, quite frankly, he had a safety blanket in an all-time shooting guard who was having one of his best seasons as a professional athlete.

Peek-a-boo, we see you.

There's something still to be proven here. Not just to the analysts watching his every move, not just to the fans who pay for overpriced seats at Staples Center, and not just to the people who are part of our community here at Silver Screen and Roll. Dwight has everything to prove to himself. The injury has hampered him but he's spent the season as a secondary thought while he gathers steam. Howard has chugged along like the little engine who could, we think he can we think he can we think he can, and now the training wheels are off.

Howard doesn't have to be a world class cyclist on his first spin on his chromed out Lakers BMX, but he does have to at least make it across the neighbor's lawn without falling over. He took the first step in being the man of the Lakers Sunday night as he put in 26 points and 17 rebounds against the San Antonio Spurs, repeatedly working around Tim Duncan in the post and scoring at the rim. In his first game as the unquestioned man at the center of the Lakers' universe Howard was burning bright like the sun while the rest of the planets orbited around him.

However far the Lakers end up going will, in the end, rely on what Howard can bring to the court from here on out. He tested the waters Sunday night and handled business for the Lakers and must deliver one more game to reach the playoffs, where the slate is cleared, and there's at least one seven-game series for Howard to break away from the shadow of his former self.

As long as Howard puts it all on the basketball court he will remain guarded from the heavy criticism that has been lobbed at him all season. Win or lose as a team, his individual game will be under the microscope. The Lakers are a broken team and have to yet again re-build their process, this time losing the most important cog in their offense in Bryant. Amidst all of the changes, all of the injuries, and all of the resets, Howard's recovery slope has been perhaps the most consistent aspect of the Lakers' season.

Now, Howard may have the largest opportunity he has had since becoming a Laker -- he can lead the Lakers against all odds and attempt to pull of one of the biggest upsets in playoff history. All he has to do is put it together for one more game, make it to the playoffs, and get ready for what will likely be a series against the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Just as he was in Orlando, Howard is the centerpiece on both ends of the floor for his team again. There's never been a greener light for him while with the Lakers, and there's never been such a rich reward on the other end of the chase. This will be the first playoff series for the Lakers without Kobe Bryant in over a decade, and will be a window to peek into what Howard will be able to do for the Lakers once number 24 closes his book. The floor is now Howard's to take over. To lead. To prove to himself he is able to lead a franchise all on his own, and prove that he's more than just talk of being part of a lineage of Lakers' greats.

One game, though, stands between a chance at winning over a city that will be anxiously awaiting his decision come free agency. Should the Utah Jazz lose one of their final two games the Lakers will still be allowed to stumble into the playoffs, but a win on April 17 -- the final day of the regular season -- would be far sweeter. Control destiny, or be victim to fate.

It's no yellow brick road for the Lakers to skip down, but more like a scene out of Saving Private Ryan. Bodies littered on the beach front, sacrifices made from brothers in arms. Should Howard lead the Lakers out of the open and into cover it would be a miracle in and of itself. Right now, they're still trying to dodge bullets, with one team left to beat before safety: the Rockets. It's anybody's guess as to how many more paces have left before they ultimately fall victim to the brutality of war, but the further the Lakers go, the further Howard's credibility shall rise.

The Lakers need Dwight Howard for the first time in franchise history.

- Drew

- Follow this author on Twitter @DrewGarrisonSBN

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