Dwight Howard arrived at Staples Center expecting to sit out another game to rest his injured shoulder. He ended up helping the Los Angeles Lakers out of their longest losing streak in nearly six years, which made that shoulder feel a whole lot better.
Howard had 22 points and 14 rebounds in his return from a three-game absence, and the Lakers snapped their six-game losing streak with a 113-93 victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers on Sunday night.
"When we play like this, we win, and we win big," Howard said. "We've just got to continue to learn from games like that, and hopefully we can just string together some wins."
Kobe Bryant scored 23 points for the Lakers, who finally earned their first victory of 2013 while ending their longest skid since February 2007. Howard went 9 for 11 despite his torn labrum while leading Los Angeles to a comfortable victory over the lowly Cavaliers, who beat the Lakers last month.
Steve Nash said the win was "mandatory" for the Lakers, and they played with an appropriate effort. Nash had 10 points and nine assists for the Lakers, whose skid has been severe enough to cause fans to worry about this star-packed roster's playoff chances even in mid-January.
"I don't want to overdo it, (but) I don't want to undersell it, either," Nash said. "We have to make up that ground. In so many areas, it was big to get a win tonight and have something to build on."
After Oklahoma City ran the Lakers out of Staples Center on Friday night in a 116-101 victory, a downbeat coach Mike D'Antoni told his players that "our season starts Sunday." Opening day went well for the Lakers, but much bigger challenges loom — including the Miami Heat's visit on Thursday.
The Lakers' hopes of a run hinge on their defensive effort, and Bryant led a strong push against the Cavs.
"I though Kobe set the tone hawking the ball with (Kyrie) Irving," D'Antoni said. "Defense was much better with Dwight back in there."
Irving and Dion Waiters scored 15 points apiece for Cleveland, which has lost seven of nine. Alonzo Gee added 14 points for the Cavaliers, who fell behind by 19 points in the first quarter of their second stop on a five-game West Coast road trip.
"We beat them the last time, but tonight they did a great job of containing me and everybody on the team," said Irving, who had seven assists. "We just got punched in the mouth in the first quarter. We just didn't have that fight in the first quarter, and it kind of killed us the rest of the game."
Cleveland (9-30) is barely ahead of Washington (6-28) for the NBA's worst record.
Pau Gasol missed his fourth straight game for Los Angeles with a concussion, while top backup Jordan Hill is likely out for the season with an injured hip. Earl Clark had another solid game in the starting lineup with 13 points, nine rebounds and three blocked shots, while Antawn Jamison added 16 points and hit four of the Lakers' 13 3-pointers.
Howard injured his shoulder earlier this month during a game against the Clippers, and he aggravated the injury last Sunday while grabbing a career high-tying 26 rebounds against Denver. He sat out for the past week to rest the injury, but didn't appear limited while patrolling the paint against the Cavs despite committing seven turnovers.
"Getting beat like that is embarrassing," said Cavs guard C.J. Miles, who had five points on 1-for-9 shooting. "You definitely can't live with this. That's the reason why it's really a big deal to us in this locker room, because we're striving to get better. There are going to be some bumps. We know that. We're not going to use that youth thing as a crutch, but there's some nights where we're playing a veteran team, and tonight it showed."
Before the game, Cavaliers coach Byron Scott declined to follow the lead of fellow '80s Lakers greats Magic Johnson and James Worthy in hammering the current Lakers for their defense, toughness and D'Antoni's strategy. Scott understandably has bigger concerns than his ex-teammates-turned-pundits who have mercilessly ripped D'Antoni, Howard and even Bryant in recent weeks.
Los Angeles looked sharp early, taking 37-18 lead in the final minute of the first quarter on a 3-pointer by Bryant. But the Lakers committed turnovers on six straight possessions late in the second half, allowing Cleveland to trim their lead to nine points.
The Lakers still scored 57 points in the first half with 17 assists on their 20 field goals.
NOTES: Nash hit three free throws, improving to 18 for 18 this season and increasing his minuscule lead on Mark Price for the best free throw percentage in NBA history. ... Cleveland continues its road trip in Sacramento on Monday night against the Kings, who have lost four straight. ... The Lakers won despite 22 turnovers, including 18 by their starting lineup.