Dwight Howard's return changes little

BOSTON -- The Los Angeles Lakers got Dwight Howard back in the lineup for the first time in four games Thursday and ended up suffering their worst loss, in terms of scoring margin, of any of the 27 losses they've piled up this season.

It turns out that the top of the list of the Lakers' problems isn't Pau Gasol's torn plantar fascia that will keep him sidelined six to eight weeks or Howard's torn labrum that could pull him from the lineup again at any time, it's simply learning how to play together 50 games into this stumbling season.

Howard was back in the Lakers' 116-95 loss to the Boston Celtics, but he wasn't back.

"When I get out there, just play as hard as I can and do whatever I can to help this team," Howard said after the game.

But it was more than just the six fouls he picked up that explained his meager nine-point, nine-rebound line.

There were the four turnovers. There was his 1-for-6 shooting from the free throw line. In other words, there were the same issues that were there when Howard was playing before he injured his shoulder more than a month ago, on Jan. 4 against the Los Angeles Clippers, and the Lakers weren't winning games consistently then either.

The Lakers came into Boston riding their most successful stretch of the season, winners of six out of seven games and discovering a style of play that suited them -- share the ball, play hard defense, make the right play, get the win at all costs.

Half that stretch was without Howard, as Gasol had meshed seamlessly back into the starting lineup and L.A. went 3-0 while its All-Star center rested his sore shoulder.

If the Lakers could swap Gasol for Howard and keep the train on the tracks, why not swap Howard for Gasol and do the same?

"The way we played tonight wasn't the way we played the last couple games," Howard said. "The ball didn't move as much. That's why we won the last couple games."

So why didn't the ball move with Howard in there?

"It's tough," Steve Nash said. "Now here we are finding ourselves, we have a great rhythm with Pau, and now he's gone and now we have to find a rhythm with Dwight, and it's just constantly changing and trying to find a rhythm and understanding of each other. It's stop, start.

"Tonight with Dwight back in the lineup, I felt like we didn't have a great rhythm offensively and I didn't think we really played that well defensively, obviously. Now we got to try to build him back into the lineup and find a way for him and us to collectively be successful."

Earlier in the season, Howard could blame Kobe Bryant for the offense bogging down or taking too many shots before he made major adjustments to his game after an air-it-out team meeting in Memphis, Tenn.

But you couldn't peg the loss to the Celtics on Bryant. Even though he racked up zero assists after collecting 65 dimes in his past seven games, that wasn't a product of him not trying to move the ball around, as Howard suggested.

"I think a lot of it is we missed a lot of shots," Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni said of Bryant's donut in the assists category. "You don't make shots, they're packing it in [on defense], and that's not Kobe's fault."

Added Bryant: "I made the plays that were there. We just didn't make shots. I can't get assists if we don't make shots. We went 4-for-21 from 3. There's not much you can do about that."

The Lakers actually ended up 5-for-23 on 3-pointers, but who's counting? You get the point. Bryant (9-for-15) shot the highest percentage of anybody on the team.

The Lakers' offense looking shaky was much more a product of trying to reintegrate Howard than anything that could be pegged on Bryant.

And the defense, well, a healthy Howard won three Defensive Player of the Year awards in Orlando. Howard isn't healthy, recently telling Stephen A. Smith that his offseason back surgery still has his body operating at only 75 percent, and his shoulder is still an issue.

The reality of the situation is that if Howard's injuries are going to cause him to play tentative on defense when he's in there, and offensively he's still having the same issues meshing with the group in February -- as he did in October -- then the Lakers might have been better off if it were Howard out the next six to eight weeks instead of Gasol.

"In a way, L.A. is kind of seeing how much we miss Pau and what he brings to the table and his skill set," Bryant said after the game. "Maybe now they'll start appreciating him a little more."

Appreciating Gasol won't get him back any sooner. The Lakers are 23-27 with 32 games to play. Nash said that, realistically, the team can't count on Gasol again until April, if you consider that will be how long to get Gasol back in playing shape.

So it will be Howard, injuries and all, who will have to finally learn how to fit in if the Lakers are to have any chance of making the playoffs.

"He has to, because we don't have a whole lot of other solutions right now -- with Pau being out, especially," D'Antoni said of Howard. "So yes, he has to work through it."

It's on Howard to do his part -- play hard, even through pain sometimes; commit to running pick-and-rolls; bring it on defense, even if the offense isn't coming. And it's on everyone surrounding Howard to use him.

"We'll figure it out," Bryant said. "Me and Steve talked about it a little bit at the end of the game there and in the locker room a little bit in terms of how to put pressure on the defense and try to maximize [Howard] in making the defense be aware and turn their head and finding him and so forth."

Because having Howard in the lineup isn't enough for the Lakers to achieve their postseason goal. They have to have him fit, and then maybe this puzzle starts to look like something worth putting together.

"We don't have a choice," Bryant said. "We just have to figure it out. We have to put our thinking caps on, and guys have to step up and have a little bit more responsibility than they ordinarily would."