And with that, Dwight Howard was finished Wednesday night. (Doug Pensinger / Getty Images)

Everything had been going so much better for the Los Angeles Lakers. Their Christmas Day victory over the Knicks was their fifth in a row and they’d clawed their way to .500. What passed for controversy concerned Steve Nash’s questionable hairstyle

Then, the night after Christmas happened and the Lakers stumbled in a 126-114 loss to  the Denver Nuggets.

The Lakers were down 79-72 in the third quarter when Kenneth Faried came flying down the lane, headed straight for the basket — and Dwight Howard. Howard stopped him all right and, in the process, clobbered him right in the face. Refs ruled the foul a Flagrant 1 but found it flagranter upon review and upgraded Howrd’s infraction to a Flagrant 2, and an ejection. The call, Howard said afterward, “surprised me.”

“My intention was never to hurt Faried. I like the young fellow and my intention was just to foul,” he told the Associated Press. “I come down the lane, somebody is going to foul me hard, put me on the free throw line and make me shoot free throws. It was the same kind of thing.”

The ejection was only the second of Howard’s career. Bryant, who had 40 points, deemed it “the right call” but didn’t think Howard would have to miss a game. Faried’s side?

“He saw my eyes, I wasn’t going to back down, I wasn’t going to try to float it,” he said. “I was going to try to dunk on him. He saw it. That’s why he put his hand directly in my face.”

George Lopez had to be wondering about Nash’s hair. He had to be. (Alex Gallardo / AP)

There you have it. Howard and the Lakers are back to learning how all their new pieces — and their relatively new coach — fit together. For Howard, there are physical issues as well. In an interview with USA Today’s Sam Amick, Howard admitted that his back, on which he has surgery last April, hasn’t fully healed yet and he has “tingling in my legs all the way down to my feet.” And the Lakers’ defense, with new coach Mike D’Antoni and other additions, isn’t where it needs to be. That takes time, as Howard said he learned in Orlando, where the Magic, after Howard’s second season, had one of the league’s top-rated defenses every year. He dared to call out Bryant after a defensive lapse Dec. 5 and, as Amick points out, he and the team know he is their future, even if he can become a free agent when the season ends.

“I know who [Bryant] is to this team, what he has been to this team for a long time,” Howard said, “but there’s going to come a day where he’s going to be gone, and that’s when I have to step in and fill that void and take this team to the next level. That’s why I’m here. That’s why they wanted me here, and I’m going to do my job and my part to make sure this team gets there – and it starts with me.

“Even now, it starts with me. That’s why I come in, and I work as hard as I can every day, don’t take days off and all that stuff because I want to show these guys that I’m all about winning and I’m all about making sure this team gets to the top. That’s all we say. At the top is us. That’s where we want to be.”

Now, about Nash’s hair…

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