ORLANDO, Fla. — Nearly eleven months has passed since Dwight Howard competed in an Orlando Magic uniform, yet he still managed a way to give them nightmares when he stepped to the foul line.
In this case, the episode went off script.
The Lakers cemented a 106-97 victory Tuesday over the Orlando Magic at Amway Center mainly because Howard’s 39 points featured him going 25 of 39 at the free throw line. That led many on the Lakers wondering why the Magic kept resorting to a tactic that Kobe Bryant described as “interesting.”
“I thought it was a mistake,” Lakers guard Steve Nash said. “He was making free throws and looked confident out there.”
That role usually belongs to Nash, a career 90.6 percent shooter at the foul line. Howard has shot 57.9 percent from the line during his nine-year career, including a 47.8 percent clip this season. The tactic this season has worked plenty of times, including the Lakers’ loss in Dec. to the Orlando Magic at Staples Center where Howard shot 9 of 21 from the stripe.
It backfired in Orlando in Howard’s first appearance here since the Magic obliged his trade request by sending him to the Lakers last offseason in a four-team, 12-player deal.
“If we would’ve made six more three’s, I probably wouldn’t have done it. But strategy wise, I needed to give our guys rest,” Magic coach Jacque Vaughn said. “I played a few guys a lot of minutes and to see if he could make them and used the percentages and he stepped up and made them.”
Howard entered the fourth quarter going 15 of 27 from the foul line. So Once Howard entered game with the Lakers nursing a 91-79 lead with 7:22 remaining, the Magic immediately resorted the tactic. It didn’t work. Howard made 10 of his 12 foul shots during that stretch.
Why didn’t Vaughn scrap the strategy once it was clear it wasn’t working?
“I needed to use time to score,” Vaughn said, “so that was the only strategy behind that.”
Well, it didn’t work, leaving Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni laughing at the tactic.
“I’m glad they do foul them,” D’Antoni said. “If the guy makes them, that’s our best offense for a long time.”
But he also expressed sympathy.
“I hate it for the fans,” D’Antoni said. “They can come to practice for free and watch him shoot 40-55 shots. They don’t even have to pay tickets. I’ll invite them all.”
According to the Lakers’ white board, Howard excels in those sessions. Rarely do they translate into games, though.
But Howard admitted having a different mindset against his former team.
“I was happy I was able to face my fears at the free throw line and knock them down,” he said. “I thought that was the best thing for me to come in here and really learn how to block a lot of stuff out and play and not allow it to affect me. That’s been big all season to where I would face a crowd and get up there and brick. This was good for me.”
So much that the Lakers believe this could provide big-picture implications.
“It can do wonders for him,” Bryant said. “The big part was him stepping up to the free throw line in this type of situation and this type of environment. For him to be able to make those here, he can make them anywhere.”
Follow L.A. Daily News Lakers beat writer Mark Medina on Twitter. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org