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MIAMI – The pain flared just moments after tip on Sunday.
On his first trip down the court, Dwight Howard felt Miami Heat players grabbing at his injured right arm.
"They got me early," he told Yahoo! Sports in the quiet of the Lakers locker room after Sunday's 107-97 loss. "They would yank it back."
Howard said the Bobcats did the same thing in Charlotte Friday night – even worse, in fact.
"It's like a jolt," he said. "Then it hurts the rest of the night."
This is the daily reality now for Dwight Howard, who no matter how publicly he is painted as soft, is playing with an injury that is not going away anytime soon. The torn labrum in his right shoulder is very real, and so is the pain.
Howard says he's trying to do everything he can on the court, but also adds: "I'm trying not to make [the injury] even worse." When asked how long doctors say it might be before the pain goes away, Howard sighed.
"No timetable," he replied.
Some might take that as evidence of how soft a player he is, but before you do that, consider this: Howard logged 41 minutes of action Sunday in Miami, four more than Kobe Bryant, and scored 15 points and grabbed nine rebounds.
These days, though, the artist formerly known as Superman looks completely miserable on the court. He's no longer the animated player he was in Orlando, with his childlike expressions and his Cheshire grins. Now he plays in a daze.
After Sunday's loss, which marked the end of a seven-game, 12-day Grammy induced road trip for the Lakers, Howard wondered how long the flight home would be. When teammate Earl Clark told him six hours, Howard groaned, and that was the end of their conversation.
A circle of reporters then closed around Howard, who was asked twice about his place in the Lakers' offense. "I don't want to talk about it," he said. Then he rested his chin in his hand.
Later he was asked about a story in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in which his father suggested Howard have a sit-down with Kobe Bryant, who last week had told ESPN's Jackie MacMullen that "we don't have time for [Howard's shoulder] to heal. We need urgency."
Howard refused comment.
[Related: Was Lil Wayne ejected from Heat game?]
Bryant isn't alone in his determination. At four games under .500, the Lakers are running out of time. In Orlando, Howard got the benefit of the doubt with most things, even when he strung the city along for a year while he made his decision about whether to stay or go. But as Bryant said, people in Los Angeles don't have time for dilly-dallying, and if that hurts Howard's sensitivity, then tough.
"I don't think he realized some of the things he was being blessed with in Orlando," Dwight Howard, Sr. told the Journal-Constitution about his son's time in L.A.
Ironically, the team in the other locker room Sunday is still riding a torrid streak that began when a supposedly center got hurt at a crucial time. The Heat's championship dash in 2012 and this season's success can be traced directly to the moment when Chris Bosh was sidelined with an abdominal injury in last May's playoff series against the Indiana Pacers. James, who had been tentative in a Game 1 loss, found his aggressive side almost immediately after that injury, and the Heat have not looked back since. With a 34-14 record, Miami looks poised to race to a second straight title.
"I understood I had to change my approach both offensively and defensively," James told reporters during the NBA Finals last year. "I had to rebound more, I had to attack more, get into the paint more to make up the difference with Chris being out. I just had to change, and it's kind of stayed that way since he got back."
It's stayed that way this season too, as James has ascended into a stratosphere that had one reporter asking Bryant Sunday if he'd take James and Dwyane Wade over Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen. Bryant laughed at the idea, but the hard truth is this: The Heat came together when their center got hurt, and the Lakers have fallen apart.
Most figured the Heat would turn into a soap opera when three stars merged in one big market, yet the only recent drama came Sunday when L'il Wayne was (supposedly) ejected for making a threatening gesture at a fan. That's the drama in Miami. On a team of megastars and mega-egos, the Heat have turned into the most boring reality show in sports.
Meanwhile, the Lakers' collection of superstars is slouching toward an empty June. Howard is a wreck, Steve Nash is getting bombarded when he gets the ball and receives no help, and Pau Gasol is out for longer than Lakers fans care to fathom. The result is the Heat becoming the new Showtime and the Lakers becoming Slowtime, with players standing around and watching Bryant try to make magic. Improbably, he often does exactly that: He had 28 points, six rebounds and nine assists Sunday, but it wasn't nearly enough. The Lakers hung with the Heat for three quarters, but it felt as if it were just a matter of time before James and Wade dropped the guillotine.
That happened at the end of the third quarter, when LeBron called for a clearout, then bulldozed his way over Metta World Peace for a thunderous dunk and the foul. James, who scored 32 points – the sixth straight game he's scored 30 or more – ended up beneath the backboard, beating his chest. In the fourth, Wade scored 16 of his 30 points as the Heat turned a two-point nail-biter into a 10-point snoozer.
The Heat are now heading toward the All-Star break as the No. 1 seed in the East, while the Lakers sit four games out of a playoff spot. A decade ago, Kobe could have shot his team out of any bad situation. Now, though still pulling off jaw-droppers, Bryant can't do what James can: play all five positions. The Heat didn't miss Bosh all that much because James developed a new post presence. Bryant can't do that. He needs help.
But all the toughness in the world may not even allow Howard to be the one to bring it. According to Michael Jablonski, an Orlando-based orthopedic surgeon, "a center is going to have more difficulty with this [labrum] injury than other position[s] on the court."
Yes, Howard is going to have to play through pain, but if the Lakers are in need of "some urgency," as Bryant declared last week, then he's got to be the one to inspire it. Howard's injury is not going to heal, so it's up to Kobe Bryant to figure out a way to heal the Lakers.
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