The instant Dwight Howard crossed the half-court line, New Jersey center Brook Lopez greeted him and hugged him.
Or fouled him.
Howard had shot so poorly at the free-throw line that he even airballed one attempt. Hence, why the Nets implemented a “Hack a Dwight” strategy, hoping Howard’s frequent misses at the charity stripe would extend their winning streak to six.
As Howard mused afterward, “it didn’t work tonight; we won.” Indeed, the Lakers did. They opened Mike D’Antoni’s debut as Lakers coach with a 95-90 win Tuesday over the Brooklyn Nets. Still, there’s no denying a 19 of 37 mark from the free-throw line should prompt concerns moving forward. D’Antoni groaned for about five seconds when I asked about it before spitting out a one-liner.
“I don’t know who’s in charge of free-throw shooting,” D’Antoni said.
But he does know who’s in charge of contributing to it. Howard’s 23 points on eight of 11 shooting and 15 rebounds sourced with a seven of 19 mark from the foul line. In a fourth quarter that featured three ties and two lead changes, Howard went 3 of 10 from the stripe, mostly after the Nets intentionally fouled him.
Instead of mulling over the issue, D’Antoni simply provided positive reinforcement.
“The thing with Dwight that I hope he knows is they started “Hack a Dwight” and he made one out of two,” D’Antoni said. “That’s one point per possession. That’s pretty good basketball especially down the stretch. That’s fine. If they want to do that, that’s great. I have no problem.”
Plenty of the 18,997 fans at Staples Center had a problem, though.
Anytime Howard went to the foul line, the crowd tensed up the same way they did in recent seasons when Metta World Peace shot ill-advised three-pointers. Ironically, he’s become a dependable outside option as he scored 17 points on a six of 13 clip from the field, including a four of nine mark from three-point range. As for Howard, plenty of Lakers fans began cheering for him in hopes the positive vibes would tip the balance.
That approach worked two times after missing the first free throw. Howard once extended the Lakers’ lead to 77-73 with 10:32 remaining. He then sliced Brooklyn’s cushion to 84-83 at the 4:07 mark. Howard touted that “the fans did a great job tonight.”
“I just got to keep playing no matter how many free throws I miss,” Howard said. “I can’t allow that to affect me on the defensive end or being aggressive on offense. The free throws will come. I will keep shooting them and keep practicing them every day. They’re going to start falling.”
Howard encountered similar issues this season.
In the Lakers’ 99-91 season-opening loss Oct. 30 to the Dallas Mavericks, Howard went only three of 14 from the free throw line. The following day, Portland coach Terry Stotts openly talked about employing the “Hack a Dwight” strategy. The approach backfired. Howard refused to overthink. He took advice from assistant coach Chuck Person on maintaining a consistent form and follow through. Howard then went 15 of 19 from the line against Portland.
According to the Lakers’ whiteboard at the team’s practice facility in El Segundo, Howard has shot 576 of 716 (80 percent) from the free throw line in practice. The Lakers believe those averages will soon translate over into games, even more so if opponents continue forcing Howard to the stripe.
“I think it’s great for him to be in that situation,” Lakers guard Kobe Bryant said of Howard. “You don’t have to deal with it. You can relax and step up and shoot.”
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