2:10 AM EDT, April 25, 2013
SAN ANTONIO -- Kobe Bryant wasn't tweeting Wednesday night, so perhaps the most compelling electronic observation came from a text sent to press row from a neighbor who probably spoke for a city.
"Dwight ain't Shaq."
In three words, that was the entire story of the Lakers' 102-91 playoff loss to the San Antonio Spurs.
In three jabs, that was the theme of the Lakers' 2-0 deficit in a first-round series that doesn't need to feel this lopsided.
Dwight Howard, who could soon sign a $118-million contract to become the Lakers' next Shaquille O'Neal, is not playing like Shaquille O'Neal. There have been times in the last two games, in fact, when he looks more like Jermaine O'Neal.
The Lakers took the floor at the AT&T Center on Wednesday exhausted and hurting, their man purses filled with ready excuses. No Kobe Bryant. No Jodie Meeks. Barely Steve Nash.
Howard, however, could soon be paid to ensure there are no excuses. He is supposed to be the excuse eliminator, the momentum creator, the giant shoulders upon which his teammates can survive nights like this.
Instead, with the Spurs surrounding and poking and prodding him, he crumbled into a giant purple ball upon which his teammates gratefully collapsed. He had five turnovers, five fouls, shot only four free throws and grabbed only two rebounds in a first half when the Lakers essentially lost it.
He was there, but he wasn't there. He was the elephant in the room, a giant that nobody could really recognize. This was the sort of game that Shaq used to own, yet this was a game that Howard quickly sold.
"I can't get too frustrated," acknowledged Howard afterward. "It takes me out of what I need to do for my team and what it takes to win."
Last week in this space Howard was praised for the intensity he showed in leading the team to two final regular-season victories after the injury to Kobe Bryant. But as the postseason has quickly grown more momentous, Howard has seemingly grown smaller.
Whether Howard can carry this kind of team through the playoffs without Bryant is something the Lakers must consider when they begin negotiations with the soon-to-be free agent. Whether he wants this kind of pressure is something Howard must also consider. Whatever happens, what happened Wednesday night cannot happen if the Lakers want to forge sort of future that Shaq and Kobe once brought them.
If Dwight truly ain't Shaq, then both sides are truly faced with a difficult decision.
As Howard spoke in the postgame press conference, his black bow tie was crooked. Back in the Lakers' locker room, his teammates' heads were bowed, their stares were long.
"It's not that we don't have the best talent," said Metta World Peace. "They just have nine guys with more confidence."
That lack of confidence began with Howard, who allowed the Spurs' aggressiveness to not only get under his skin, but also inside his head. Is wasn't just the things he didn't do, but it was how he didn't do them.
With 15 seconds remaining in a first quarter in which he had missed more than half of his shots, Howard inexplicably threw up a 15-footer that bricked, leading to a five-point Lakers deficit at the end of the period.
In the second quarter, after blocking a shot and a pass on one possession, he lost the ball at the other end of the court and watched Tim Duncan race down for a fastbreak layup that pushed a two-point deficit to four.
He could stay on the court for only four minutes of the third quarter after picking up two more quick fouls, including a technical for talking to the officials.
"They called a foul, I told the ref I love you, I got a tech for it," Howard said with a weary grin. "There was no love on the floor."
No love, maybe, but plenty of ball, especially when it was passed to Howard in the fourth quarter. He lost it twice early in the quarter to allow the Spurs to push the lead to 14 and end all hope.
By then, his head seemed totally out of the game, and he finished the quarter taking just one shot while committing three turnovers.
"You know, they just did a good job of coming up with plays we haven't seen. Some of their guys got hot as we were trying to make a run," Howard said.
"Oh yeah, it's frustrating, you just got to trust my teammates to make shots, and when they go double, triple, whatever they do, beware of my arms, try not to get them tangled up."
Two games into their first postseason with Howard, and the Lakers are all tangled up in questions about his future here. In two games he has 10 fouls, nine turnovers, four offensive rebounds, and only six made free throws.
And, oh yeah, two losses.
"Either we overcome it or we go home. And we don't want to go home," Howard said.
"We fought to get into the playoffs, we fought this far, we're going to keep fighting."
It's nice talk. He has two more games to walk it.
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