7:00 AM CDT, October 22, 2012
The question posed to Coach Mike Brown before the Lakers' exhibition against Sacramento seemed simple, but he pretended he didn't understand.
What, he was asked, can you tell us about Dwight starting?
"Dwight who?" Brown said, a puzzled look creasing his face.
That would be Dwight Howard, No.12 on your scorecard, six-time All-Star center, the guy supposedly destined to take ownership of a Lakers team that remains very much Kobe Bryant's but clearly needed a makeover after two straight second-round playoff exits.
Before getting too deep into projecting when Howard will inherit Bryant's throne, he had to first play a game. The day arrived Sunday, six months after he underwent back surgery but still in time for him to find his rhythm for the Oct. 30 season opener.
Eager but sometimes a half-step behind plays and more than occasionally breathing hard, Howard gave fans an intriguing look at the possibilities he can create as a big, mobile, motivated presence in the middle — emphasis on motivated. "It's a gift to play with him," guard Steve Nash said.
His Lakers debut didn't end their exhibition losing streak — their 99-92 loss to the Kings at Staples Center left them 0-6 — but Howard made an imposing first impression with 19 points and 12 rebounds in nearly 33 minutes, about a minute more than Brown had planned on playing him.
"It was cool," Howard said afterward, showered and dressed and back to wearing his glasses. "I was a little rusty. It's a matter of just getting my timing back, and at the defensive end just being there for my teammates."
Those teammates did all they could to make him feel at home, with Bryant looking for him early to set him up and set a tone.
"I just want to make sure he gets his feet wet here," Bryant said. "There's been a lot of expectations placed upon him and upon us to kind of live up to the hype and I didn't want him feeling nervous. He was, a little bit, but I just wanted him to go out there and play his game and do what he does."
Howard started the game and finished it, in between showing his versatility and glimpses of the impact he can have this season.
He was also guilty of five of the Lakers' 22 turnovers, but Brown said he wasn't too bothered by those miscues because they resulted from trying to create chances. The Lakers had 22 assists on 33 field goals, with Nash tying Pau Gasol for the team lead with five each.
"Aside from turnovers, I thought the first group looked pretty good," Brown said. "Most of the turnovers were them trying to make a play for their teammate because I thought we had some great stretches where we were really unselfish and you could see the stress-free nature of the offense, you could see that working."
Bryant also said the gaffes can be corrected now that the starting five has been on the court together.
"A lot of that is just timing. Some of those are lobs.... Just timing on backdoors and things like that, kind of working out those minor kinks," Bryant said. "So those turnovers are just a result of us playing together a little more and us getting the timing down on some of those passes and that will come."
They have two more exhibitions left to polish their act. "We're a work in progress," Nash said. "Every day we learn a little more and we get a little more connectivity and understanding. We're going to need time."
The worst for Howard, though, is behind him.
"Back surgery is always tough. There's always a lot of question marks that comes with that, a lot of unknowns," Bryant said. "He's done his rehab. I know it's been a frustrating process for him and he's been wanting to get out there for so long."
Finally, he did. It wasn't perfect but it was a good preview of what might develop.
"I'm just so thankful to be back on the court after coming back from a serious injury," Howard said. "I just feel thankful for this opportunity."
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