The Lakers are reaping the benefits of using Dwight Howard as a spark plug off the bench

CHICAGO -- In a Tuesday night matchup against a Chicago Bulls team that has struggled to string wins together, the Los Angeles Lakers found themselves down 19 points. Anthony Davis was in foul trouble during his homecoming game in Chicago, LeBron James was exhausted from playing nearly the entire game, and it looked like the Bulls might be able to pull off the upset. 

The Lakers entered the fourth quarter down 13 points, and coach Frank Vogel relied on his bench unit to get them back in the game. Strong performances from Kyle Kuzma, Quinn Cook and Alex Caruso helped get the Lakers in a rhythm offensively, but on defense, Dwight Howard once again stepped up when the Lakers needed him most. 

During one sequence, Howard picked up Bulls rookie Coby White on defense out at the 3-point line. White had been causing problems for the Lakers all game, and against a bigger defender like Howard one might assume he would hit him with a crossover and pull up for a jumper, or drive past him to finish at the rim. White did the latter, but Howard was attached to his hip, and as White went up for the layup, Howard swatted the shot directly into a cameraman on the baseline. Howard let out a loud roar toward the fans, and the large groups of fans in gold jerseys showered him with cheers.

On the very next play, Howard had a chance to convert an and-1, and the Lakers began their comeback to squeeze out a 118-112 win and improve to an NBA-best 6-1 record. This is the kind of intensity that Howard has been bringing in the opening weeks of the season for the Lakers. He's had standout offensive performances -- like the game against the Charlotte Hornets where he put up a 16-10 line with four blocks, and his 14-point, 13-rebound performance against the San Antonio Spurs -- but his defense is what has been his calling card this season.

"If I see that we need some defensive energy, then when I get in the game I try to be the spark for our team on defense," Howard said. "Coming off the bench, you get an opportunity to see what's going on in the game, how team's are playing and the different schemes they're trying to present to us. I try to use that and figure out how I need to get on the court and play."

Howard's 2.3 blocks per game is good for top 10 in the league, and his 10.1 plus/minus value is second-best on the Lakers. His defense is just one piece in the cog that has propelled the Lakers to having the second-best defensive rating in the league (97.9), and his knack for swatting any shot near the rim has helped Los Angeles become the top team in the league in blocks per game. When he shares the court with Anthony Davis, the two are a formidable duo for any opponent brave enough to drive it into the paint against them.

That defensive effort against White is something we haven't seen from Howard in a long time. For the past few seasons, Howard was putting up solid offensive numbers, and he's averaged a double-double 14 times in his 16-year career, but for him to move his feet like he did against a very speedy guard like White shows he's completely locked in on that end of the floor.

"We understand that in order for us to win, our defense has to be where we hang our hats on," Howard said. "We know that right now, because we just got together, that it's new for all of us and the offense is going to take some time. But on the defensive end, we have a lot of guys who enjoy playing defense, blocking shots and rebounding."

Between Howard, Davis and James, they combine for 14 All-Defensive Team selections, and three Defensive Player of the Year Awards, the latter of which all belong to Howard. He may be far away from the days of being the top dog on a team, but Howard has been a standout for the Lakers coming off the bench.

Vogel has done nothing but praise Howard's efforts thus far, using phrases like "off the charts," when it comes to his play, or calling him "a star in his role" for the Lakers. LeBron has showered him with praise on social media after big performances, and Davis has spoken highly of him in postgame interviews, saying Howard "always seems to do something huge for us" when he's on the floor.

Not much was expected of Howard in his second stint with the Lakers, as evidenced in the non-guaranteed contract he signed, that pays him $14,000 for every day he is still on the roster. He's been criticized in almost every locker room he's been in, and signing with the Lakers had potential to be a disaster for a team that has dealt with their fair share of drama over the years. Instead, in his second stint with the purple and gold, Howard has received nothing but positive remarks from coaches and players alike.

Howard may not be putting up the All-Star numbers he's accustomed to earlier in his career, but he's making plays when it counts to help the Lakers win, which is all that matters to him.

"I don't think about my own success," Howard said. "The team is what is most important, and whatever I have to do to help this team win I'm willing to do it. That's what I try to bring every night: energy, good defense and I try to enjoy the game as much as possible."

While he may not think about his own success, Howard's successes have been what's helped the Lakers so far this season.

Jasmyn Wimbish has been closely following the NBA since Dirk Nowitzki hit his sweet signature jumper to send the Miami Heat packing in 2011. She's a graduate of the University of Kansas and Northern Arizona... Full Bio

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