Lakers’ Dwight Howard wants to set a new touch-tone

Lakers center Dwight Howard dunks against the Jazz on Friday night, when he had 17 points on eight-for-12 shooting and took 13 rebounds.
(Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

Dwight Howard likes getting touches early in games. Obviously.

“For a lot of us bigs . . . give us some food, we’re good. We don’t eat, we’re grumpy,” he said Saturday with a smile.

It sounded eerily like something Shaquille O’Neal said in similarly stormy times a dozen years ago, but it might be the most important component of the Lakers’ season.

When Howard is involved on offense, he thrives. When he isn’t, he falters, sometimes bringing the team with him.

The Lakers are lucky. They have a primer on how to win. It happened Friday.

Howard had eight shots in the first eight minutes against Utah. He was happy. Kobe Bryant had 14 assists, one shy of his career high, and Howard had 17 points on eight-for-12 shooting in a 102-84 victory over Utah.

“It’s great with me and Pau [Gasol] working together and the inside-out attack,” Howard said. “The game is a lot easier that way when we’re attacking the rim. Then Kobe can get his jump shots off when he needs and he’s not working so much to get his shot off. It’s just better for our team.”

O’Neal had similar things to say in January 2001 as Bryant’s stats increased, O’Neal’s scoring average dropped four points and the Lakers’ victory total was lower than expected a few months into a championship defense.

“I’m dominant offensively. I can do things defensively. When you feed the big dog, the dog will be happy,” said the reigning MVP at the time. “I’m not Luc Longley. I’m not Dikembe Mutombo. I can’t run 13 minutes in a game without touching the ball. I’m not used to that. I wasn’t brought here to rebound and do that stuff. [Former Lakers executive] Jerry West brought me in here because he wanted me to play. I can put numbers on the board. I can do what I do.

“It’s not about points. We’re not an outside team. We’re an inside-out team.”

Very. Striking. Indeed.

But Bryant and Howard are not Bryant and O’Neal. Not even close.

Bryant has been irritated by Howard’s clowning-around nature and let him have it in front of teammates, coaches and team personnel at the Lakers’ clear-the-air meeting Wednesday in Memphis.

But they don’t detest each other, terminology reserved strictly for Bryant and O’Neal.

And it wouldn’t be the worst thing if Bryant kept sharing like he did Friday, when he finished one assist shy of his career record.

Gasol also looked rejuvenated against the Jazz, making seven of eight shots and standing up to a shove-fest with Utah power forward Paul Millsap.

It put Howard in a questioning mood when he was told by a reporter that two big men couldn’t play together on the court.

“Ralph Sampson, Hakeem Olajuwon,” he said. “David Robinson, Tim Duncan. [Andrew] Bynum and Pau. What do they have in common? They all won championships!”

Well, Sampson didn’t. But Howard’s point was understood, even as it flew in the face of Coach Mike D’Antoni’s push-the-pace system.

“I think two bigs is always great, especially when you’ve got a guy like Pau who can shoot the ball, pass very well and finish around the basket,” Howard said. “We work well off each other. We can pound the post and it’s tough for teams to really do a lot when you have two big guys down there.”

So Bryant sacrificed shots against Utah (he took 10, made seven, scored 14 points) at the expense of getting teammates involved. The Lakers (18-25) broke a four-game losing streak.

“Is it a sacrifice? Or is it, yeah, he played the right way?” D’Antoni said. “I don’t know if it’s a sacrifice. But he set the tone. There’s no doubt about it. He played back in the day like Oscar Robertson played. He’s got 14 assists, he’s got nine rebounds, he’s got easy shots all over the place.

“Some nights it’s 14 points, some nights it’s 30 points. He’ll read the defense.”

Howard wasn’t flawless Friday. He admitted he was exhausted when he went to the bench with 2:05 left in the first quarter.

“I’ve never been tired in the first quarter of games in my whole career,” said Howard, who had back surgery last April. “But all that stuff comes with time. I can’t give in to being tired. That’s fatigue from sitting out for five months. It’s conditioning.

“When you don’t play for five months and you’re trying to get in shape during the season and playing 40 minutes a night, that’s not simple. It’s very tough to come back and play big minutes and have to wrestle every night, going for the rebound and block shots and do all that stuff.”

He might be tired in Sunday’s game too.

The Lakers play Oklahoma City (34-10) at Staples Center. They’re 15½ games behind the Thunder in the Western Conference standings and on a seemingly hopeless 2-9 skid against the defending West champion, including a five-game loss in last season’s conference semifinals.

The Thunder just drilled the Lakers two weeks ago at Staples Center, 116-101, as Kevin Durant had 42 points and Bryant made eight of 23 shots.

Last month, Bryant had a more impressive 35 points and seven assists but Russell Westbrook hammered the Lakers with 27 points and five assists in the first half of a 114-108 Thunder victory.

The Lakers are 6-15 against teams ahead of them in the West standings. It’ll take a lot to improve it Sunday, even if the big men get fed.