HECTOR AMEZCUA / hamezcua@sacbee.com

Lakers center Dwight Howard, center, is defended by the Kings' Chuck Hayes, left, and Marcus Thornton during Los Angeles' 113-97 loss at Sleep Train Arena on Nov. 21. Tonight, the Kings expect to play a more competitive Lakers team.

Lakers will put up fight this time -- unlike their Nov. 21 loss at Sleep Train

Published: Sunday, Mar. 17, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 5C
Last Modified: Sunday, Mar. 17, 2013 - 10:16 am

LOS ANGELES – Back in November, the Kings beat the Los Angeles Lakers rather handily in Sacramento.

The Kings aren't expecting to walk over the Lakers this time around.

The Lakers are hardly the dominant force in the Western Conference that most expected, but they're much better than the confused bunch the Kings thwarted 113-97 on Nov. 21 at Sleep Train Arena.

The Lakers have gone from eight games under .500 at 17-25 to 35-32 and within two games of the No. 6 seed in the West.

Lately, any drama about the Lakers is related to basketball games. And the man in the middle of the resurgence had been the focus of much of the "What's wrong with the Lakers?" chatter.

Center Dwight Howard, who had just seven points and nine rebounds in the November loss to the Kings, has been playing like a star recently.

Howard has averaged 17.2 points, 14.8 rebounds and 2.6 blocked shots since the All-Star break and no longer looks like the player recovering from back surgery the Kings saw in the fall.

"He didn't have that pop to get back defensively," Kings coach Keith Smart said of Howard's play earlier in the season. "One-effort plays, he was making more of those then. … Now he's making more multiple-effort plays where he goes over for help and then there's a pass made to his guy and he's able to get back into the play."

That could be a big problem for the Kings, especially if they are without center DeMarcus Cousins, who is listed as day-to-day with a bruised left quad contusion. The Kings are 2-4 without Cousins this season.

The Kings have played the Lakers once this season without Cousins and it wasn't pretty. Los Angeles won 103-90 on Nov. 11 when Cousins was serving a league suspension. A still-rusty Howard had 23 points, 18 rebounds and three blocked shots.

Even though he spent much of the season trying to regain his form, Howard leads the NBA in rebounding at 12.4 per game.

Chuck Hayes said Howard's ability to get offensive rebounds can be problematic because that's where he draws a lot of fouls on opponents.

"Once (Howard) plants his feet in that paint to go up for an offensive rebound, his elbows are high, his shoulders are wide; you've just got to hope it's a long rebound," Hayes said.

Having Howard healthy could make playing with Kobe Bryant limited by a sprained left ankle less of a factor for the Lakers.

Bryant played the first quarter Friday before sitting out the rest of a victory at Indiana, the kind of win the Lakers would not have pulled off earlier this season.

"It's kind of like they … stopped talking and started playing, the whole team," Hayes said. "Stopped making excuses, stopped pointing at what they're doing wrong. It's kind of like they decided to just shut up and fix the problem."

The Kings won't be looking at their recent success against the Lakers – three wins in the last five games – as reason to be confident tonight.

"They're playing at a different level," Smart said. "At the time we played them early on, early in the year, they were still trying to find out who they were. Steve Nash wasn't playing (because of injury), Dwight Howard wasn't in basketball shape. He was in good cardio shape, but he wasn't in good basketball shape, so he was still trying to find his way."

Follow The Bee's Jason Jones on Twitter @mr_jasonjones and read more about the team at www.sacbee.com/kings.

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