|Just when it looks like the Lakers are making some progress, Dwight Howard's creaky shoulder acts up. (AP)|
PHOENIX -- It was as feel-good a night as the Lakers have had during this debacle of a season, at least at the beginning. Steve Nash strolled into U.S. Airways Center for the first time since leaving the Suns, did his appointed rounds with the media and enjoyed a standing ovation when he was introduced and again when the Suns treated him to a video tribute in the first quarter.
The Lakers had embarked on this seven-game Grammys road trip with so much hope, with the feeling that the tide finally had turned against the misery, the confrontation and the sometimes comical failures (dark comedy, of course) of this star-stacked basketball team.
Then the fourth quarter happened. Dwight Howard went down like an oak tree in the orange paint under the basket, and the Lakers disappeared.
When someone is ready to do a video tribute to this Lakers season, they'd better call Stephen King or raise Alfred Hitchcock from the dead.
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This is a horror show.
The latest screamer was a 13-point fourth quarter against the Suns, which eerily dovetailed with the 13-point lead the Lakers squandered in that quarter. They lost 92-86 on Wednesday night, registering their eighth consecutive road loss and dropping their road record to 5-16. For a point of reference, that's Bobcats territory. They're 20-26 overall.
But what dropped on this night wasn't simply another game, what was lost wasn't merely momentum. Howard went down again after re-aggravating the torn labrum in his right shoulder -- again. As Howard tried to go up for dunk or a layup, he saw the ball raked out of his hands by Suns guard Shannon Brown with 6:57 left and the Lakers clinging to a 78-73 lead.
Howard's head snapped back so violently that it appeared he had been hit in the jaw or the face, but the Lakers weren't so lucky. Howard oddly was holding his wrist and forearm afterward, and he explained why in the locker room after the game.
"Numbness," he said. "It just went all down my arm and my neck. It was pretty bad when it happened."
Howard sat at his locker with his jersey still on and an ice pack on his ailing shoulder for a good 20 minutes after reporters entered. He checked messages on his phone and rested his head in his left hand. Taking off his jersey and putting on a T-shirt was an ordeal.
"It's really sore," Howard said. "Everything on this side his hurting pretty bad right now."
Asked if he can continue to play with the injury, Howard said, "I'm gonna try as much as I can. But I don't want to cause more damage to my shoulder."
He said doctors have told him that rest and keeping his right arm out of harm's way on the court were the appropriate remedies, but he said he doesn't want to take a week or two off to see if that helps.
"But we'll see," he said.
Asked about possibly needing surgery, Howard said, "Not right now." He made clear that he has no intention of "shutting it down" and said the pain is "nothing" compared to his back injury last season.
"Two years with having injuries, it's not something that's easy to deal with," Howard said. "But I won't lose my spirit, and I've just got to continue to do whatever I can to get my shoulder strong."
A while earlier, Nash had been dutifully signing Suns and Lakers jerseys with his name emblazoned on the back, doing so through gritted teeth after a loss that put the brakes on the Lakers' recent turnaround. He will continue shouldering on past his 39th birthday next week, and the contrast between the skinny but able-bodied old point guard and the mammoth, chiseled Howard -- with his head in his hand and an ice pack perched on his shoulder -- was just another window into the Lakers' theater of the bizarre.
Behind a glass window, Pau Gasol sat on the training table getting his right foot worked on and wincing now and again. In the hallway, Gasol said his foot was simply sore, and that it was an issue he has been dealing with for a while. (At least he got to play in the fourth quarter this time.) In walked Kobe Bryant, whose frustration had bubbled over last week after a loss in Memphis -- another game that Howard left with a shoulder re-aggravation and didn't return.
Enter Mr. Sunshine.
"We let one get away, but we have a long season ahead of us and I'm pleased with how we've been playing lately," said Bryant, who had 17 points and nine assists. "... This is not like earlier in the year. I'm not too concerned about it."
On Howard's shoulder, Bryant admitted it's going to be "an all-season thing" but said he has played with the same injury before and that Howard would have to get used to it.
"It's one of those injuries where, if you get banged when you go up, you're going to get that stinging sensation," Bryant said. "That's just how it's going to be. You just accept it. After a while, you kind of get used to playing with it, but it's an adjustment at first."
Before the game, Nash and Mike D'Antoni had talked about returning to Phoenix together, coming back to the place where they had so much success. D'Antoni mentioned there's a tendency not to appreciate how good you had it until you're gone.
"I'm very grateful for the reception but also for my time here," said Nash, who had 11 points and two assists, an unrecognizable afterthought with his new team. "They were the best years of my life."
The longest, strangest season of his life is either just getting started or will be put out of its misery on this road trip. It will continue Friday night in Minnesota, with Howard or without him.
"We'll see how it feels tomorrow," Howard said.
At least the Lakers haven't run out of tomorrows. Not yet.