HOUSTON – As he sat by his locker stall, Dwight Howard listened intently.
Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni leaned over and talked with him before patting him on the shoulder.
Through both his actions and his words, D’Antoni has vowed support toward Howard despite his struggles at the free-throw line and opponents adopting the “Hack-a-Dwight” strategy that puts him in that position to fail.
D’Antoni made one thing clear: The Lakers’ 107-105 loss Tuesday to the Houston Rockets at Toyota Center had little to do with Howard’s eight of 16 mark from the free-throw line and six of 10 clip in the final 3:17 when Houston intentionally sent him to the line. D’Antoni argued the Lakers dropping their sixth road loss out of seven games had more to do with allowing Houston to grab 21 offensive rebounds and the Lakers committing 19 turnovers. Hence, why D’Antoni sounded incredulous over sitting Howard late in games.
“They have no clue what they’re talking about,” D’Antoni said. “You don’t do that to a guy. He’s not the reason our defense breaks down. He’s not the reason stuff happens. He’s got to work through this. You take him out now, and then what? Will you take him out all the time? You have a player who is going to be your franchise player, and you do that? You don’t do that. It’s not him causing the problem. It’s not a good thing for me to make a knee jerk reaction.”
Howard seemed dismissive too.
“Why should he take me out?” said Howard, who posted 16 points on four of nine shooting and 12 rebounds. “It wasn’t just about me missing free throws toward the end of the game. We have to do a better job defending.”
The Lakers also did a good job defending Howard, including Metta World Peace, Antawn Jamison and Chris Duhon.
“It’s one of those fine lines,” said Lakers guard Chris Duhon, who also played with Howard with the Orlando Magic from 2010-12. “You don’t always want to be in his ear, do this, do this. But at the same time, you want to encourage him and let him know we’re behind him and we believe in him.”
Kobe Bryant didn’t take that balancing act.
He sounded pretty honest on what the Hack a Howard strategy does.
“When teams foul Dwight,” Bryant said, “it puts a lot of pressure on our defense.”
Bryant also said he’s talked frequently about Howard’s career-low 46.5 percent mark from the line.
“Just working at it all the time,” Bryant said, “and try to overload the system on working on it, practicing it and doing it over and over and turning it into a strength.”
Bryant tried to turn it into a strength by throwing the ball at half court in hopes he could get called for a shooting foul before the Rockets hacked Howard. The Lakers center, though, has still yet to find a remedy.
The shouts rumbled all over the arena. The public address announcer encouraged the loud antagonism. And as he stood at the free throw line, Howard looked shaken.
He missed his first three attempts. Howard bounced back and made three of his next five. But those initial gaffes emboldened Houston to run up and down the floor with ease.
Facing his former team for the first time since switching uniforms, Howard also faced the same problem Sunday against the Orlando Magic. In that game, Howard went nine of 21 from the stripe. The Lakers’ six of their 10 losses happened when the missed free throws exceeded the point differential between a win and a loss.
“It’s okay,” Howard said. “I’ll get better. I’ll keep shooting them and step up to the line and knock them down.”
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