Dwight Howard scored 26 points and grabbed 17 rebounds Sunday against one of the greatest players of all-time, Tim Duncan, to get the Lakers one win from the playoffs. The Lakers were able to win the final three minutes after Bryant went down in the last game, and in their first full game without Bryant they beat the Spurs, the second best team in the West. A win against the Rockets Wednesday, or a loss by the Utah Jazz Monday or Wednesday, puts the Lakers in the playoffs most likely against the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Howard was dominant, and he was clutch, emerging as the go-to superstar with Bryant gone.
His dominant defensive play held the normally sharp-shooting Spurs to 37.1 percent shooting, as he blocked three shots, altered others, but also made the Spurs pull up from further out than their comfort zone. While the Lakers shot even lower with without Bryant as an option, Howard grabbed many of the misses he forced to give the Lakers a 42-36 edge on the boards.
With Bryant out, the Spurs focused their defense on Howard and intentionally fouled him repeatedly. The fouls worked as he hit just eight of 17 free throws, but the continual need to focus on Howard repeatedly left Steve Blake and Antawn Jamieson open. Those two combined to hit seven of 13 three-pointers for a decisive margin.
The Spurs needed a stop with just over two minutes left to cut the 84-79 margin. Howard made a great move and scored on a hook to make it 86-79. After the Spurs scored, it took two players on the other end of the court to foul Howard hard enough to stop him from scoring. Howard took the physical abuse he has so often taken, and stepped to the line and swished both free throws to make it 88-81.
The crafty Duncan did draw a foul on Howard at the other end for a traditional three-point play, but Howard’s two clutch trips had given the Lakers the margin they needed to win without Bryant.