ORLANDO, Fla. -- In the Los Angeles Lakers' season-long game of Minesweeper, they've managed to isolate another explosive, and the board looks pretty clear from here on out.
All season long it has been one extracurricular mind cloud to deal with -- from freak injuries, to exaggerated stories about player fighting, to a coaching shuffle, rotation grumblings, the death of a legendary owner, to a two-time MVP's return to Phoenix and, on Tuesday, a three-time Defensive Player of the Year's return to Orlando -- and finally the Lakers' heads are narrowing their focus on one, fundamental thing: becoming a better basketball team.
L.A. beat Orlando largely because of Dwight Howard's humongous effort with 39 points, 16 rebounds and three blocked shots punctuated by a record-setting 25-for-39 night from the free-throw line, yet the marvel shouldn't be the result, but rather how he and the team arrived at it.
"I just treated it as another day, another game," Howard said.
That's the mind space Howard and his teammates have been occupying for more than six weeks now, winning nine of 11 games since the All-Star break and 17 of 23 games overall.
"We got to continue just to focus," said Metta World Peace, whose antics have been relatively tame in this circus season of distractions. "Really, it's just possession by possession with us. We don't have no room to focus on anything else."
That focus is the reason the Lakers were able to come back from 25 points down on the road to beat the New Orleans Hornets, or scrape out an overtime victory they had no business winning against the Toronto Raptors. That focus is the reason L.A. held a second straight opponent to sub-40 percent shooting in Orlando after doing it against the Chicago Bulls on Sunday.
"We're able to put together stretches where we can play defense and give effort for a longer period of time," World Peace said. "Before, we weren't able to do that."
Before, the Lakers weren't able to do a lot of things.
There was too much muck to wade through, too much flotsam and jetsam that needed to be filtered.
Kobe Bryant's iron will has been given much of the credit for getting L.A.'s compass pointed back in the right direction, but with a group as complicated as the Lakers, it's just as important to make sure there's another leader bringing up the rear, as it is to have one out front.
"I think it was just persistence," Bryant said after a relatively easy night of 11 points, eight assists and seven rebounds as he accepted to ride the wave that Howard created. "We believed it was just a matter of time before things got turned around, but we had to keep our sense of urgency. A lot of it starts with Dwight, man -- him just buying in to what we need him to do and him just excelling at it. His game just has been absolutely on point."
As Howard has bought in -- setting harder screens, rolling to the basket with more purpose, pushing himself on defense even when his offense is lacking -- the Lakers have been able to actually make adjustments to best serve the group, not just make changes for the sake of changes to get something to stick.
"Chemistry is coming along," Howard said. "We just got to keep it going. We talk every day. We see things; all of us look at film for ways to make our team better. That's what we have to continue to do."
Moving up to 34-31 and taking back control of the No. 8 seed in the West with 17 games left to play doesn't mean all is perfect.
There are still kinks to be worked out. The Dwight-Kobe pairing still has its rough edges, with Tuesday's example being Bryant's saying his message to Howard before the game was, "Just come out here and kill them," and Howard saying, "I don't remember [Bryant] saying that. But, if he did, it's cool."
But there's time for that to fit. And with five weeks left in the regular season, we will soon find out if Bryant's playoff guarantee comes to fruition. As long as those two continue to communicate as well on the court through their play, there won't be a problem.
The Lakers' "problems" now are trying to solve the nine road games and eight home games left on their schedule, the eight games against playoff teams and nine games against non-playoff teams. The basketball. That's all that matters now.
"I think we found our rhythm," Bryant said. "We found our roles. Everything is just kind of fitting well together right now. We're playing exceptional basketball."
Beats playing Minesweeper.