Dwight Howard isn't Dwight Howard.
He's not the dunk-tastic, shot-blocking force of energy under the basket that he used to be.
But why? The Lakers center continues to point to back surgery last April to repair a herniated disk.
"It's one of the biggest factors," Howard said after practice Saturday. "Coming off the injury, I only had four weeks to get ready for the season, which was training camp and then preseason. I didn't really have a chance to really get in good shape. It's hard trying to get in shape during the season playing a lot of minutes and traveling."
So, is he getting where he wants to be physically?
"I'm not even close," he said. "I used to play 45, 48 minutes without really getting tired. Now I have five possessions, I'm winded. I just know how much more effective I will be in better shape and that just comes with time. Unfortunately, it cost us a lot of games, but we've got an opportunity to make history. I'm going to try and do whatever I can to help this team win."
Howard has shown shades of a revival, including his 19-point, 16-rebound effort in a 111-107 victory Friday over Portland.
He was notably active without the ball under the basket in the final few minutes. He kept alive a Lakers possession by batting the ball up off a rebound and allowing Kobe Bryant to grab it. Then he stole the ball from Portland guard Wes Matthews. Then he blocked Damian Lillard's attempt off a spin move.
Howard's coming around ... slowly.
"For sure," Lakers Coach Mike D'Antoni said. "All night he was active. Just a great game. That should be a norm for us."
Howard has also been more involved in pick-and-roll situations with Steve Nash and Bryant.
"He's getting in better shape," D'Antoni said. "When you get tired, a lot of times you just want to go down and, 'Just get me the ball because I'm too tired to go get it.'
"Now he understands he can be in every play. We want him in every play and be a big factor."
Howard, by the way, prefers a slower offense.
"When it's an up-and-down game, we've got a lot of old guys, guys like myself who are not in the best of shape, and Earl's playing a lot of minutes," Howard said of Earl Clark. "We want to play to our advantage. We'll slow the ball down and don't have as many turnovers, that's an advantage for us.
"When we try to play like other teams and just run up and down and shoot threes and take quick shots, then we're playing to their advantage. They try to get us into playing that way so they can win games.
"We're all older now. I think the best way for us to play is half-court basketball. That's how it's going to be in the playoffs. If we get that down, we'll be tough to beat."
The Lakers are 9-18 in road games, an obvious reason for their ninth-place status in the Western Conference.
"On the road, you've got to be gritty. You can't just take a play off because you're up five points," said D'Antoni, who said the Lakers needed to play better defense to win more on the road.
Good idea. Twelve of their next 18 games are away from Staples Center, starting with a back-to-back set Sunday in Dallas and Monday in Denver.
Clark and Nash are both expected to play Sunday. Nash's back was sore in Friday's game against Portland, and Clark injured his left pinkie finger while going for a rebound late in the game.