In these desperate times, the only fighting chance the Dallas Mavericks believed they had in unseating the Lakers and pushing a possible playoff run involved a ploy that’s become all too familiar to Dwight Howard.
Intentionally foul him and force him to make free throws.
The Lakers’ playoff fortunes only depended on Howard’s foul shooting. With the Lakers retiring Shaquille O’Neal’s No. 34 jersey at the Staples Center rafters, the former Lakers center hardly minced words on why he’s continuously expressed dissatisfaction with the new Superman.
“I’m just doing to him what others did to me,” O’Neal said. “I was a young kid averaging 20 [points a game]. Someone asked Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar] what he thought of me. He said, ‘He’s an OK player, but he doesn’t have any championships. It wasn’t really a diss, I just think it was Kareem’s issuance of a challenge to me to step it up a little bit. I’m not criticizing the guy, I’m just issuing a challenge.”
Howard took up that challenge. He helped the Lakers secure a 101-81 victory Tuesday over the Dallas Mavericks at Staples Center by making eight of his final 12 free throw attempts in the final 4:04 of the game.
“I think he believes when he steps up there, he’s going to make them,” Lakers guard Kobe Bryant said. “I firmly believe he thinks that now. He’s not concerned about it. He’s not nervous about it. He accepts the challenge to step it up there and knock it down.”
A similar thing happened in Howard’s return to Orlando for the first time since his trade last offseason to the Lakers. In that game, Howard shot 25 of 39 from the foul line.
“That’s the biggest pressure situation personally for him that he’s facing and going back to a hostile environment in an area that was a great deal of focus when he was there,” Bryant said. “He stepped them up and knocked them down.”
Howard offered more against Dallas than making foul shots. He provided everything. Howard posted a team-leading 24 points on 7 of 12 shooting and12 rebounds. That nearly satisfied O’Neal’s expectation that he average at least 28 points and 10 rebounds per game.
“The other guy [Howard] needs to step into his own,” O’Neal said. “I would like to see him average 28 and 10. That’s the number that was thrown in my face, 28 and 10, so that’s the number I’m always going to throw in his face. “I see a kid with a lot of talent. When I see him averaging 16 or 18, that’s not enough for me.”
Howard hardly sounded interested in hearing about O’Neal’s feedback.
“I’ve never heard it from him personally,” Howard said. “I just feel in today’s society, if you have something to say positive or negative about somebody, you should go to that person and say it to them. Because people and twist it and turn it. But nevertheless, I’m happy for Shaq.He had his jersey retired when he was young, his kids were here, it’s great.”
Yet, O’Neal’s ceremony brought a vivid reminder on how Howard could follow in the footsteps of other great Lakers centers, which have also included George Mikan, Wilt Chamberlain and Abdul-Jabbar.
When the Lakers unveiled O’Neal’s No. 34 jersey in the Staples Center rafters at halftime Tuesday, the moment brought the four-time NBA champion and fifth all-time leading scorer full circle.
When the Lakers signed O’Neal to a seven-year, $120 million deal in 1996, former general manager Jerry West offered this prediction to O’Neal when he scanned the Fabulous Forum eying various retired jerseys, including those of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Wilt Chamberlain.
“He told me to look up (at the rafters) and said, `If you do things the right way son, you can be as good as these guys,” O’Neal recalled. “I didn’t believe him at first. But I turned into a dominant player.
At Howard’s introductory press conference last August, Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak offered a similar prediction.
“Me and Mitch have had plenty of talks about everything,” Howard said. “I told him what I tell you guys. What matters is right now and what we can control today. That’s all that matters.”
And to Howard, that doesn’t include recognizing the similar personality traits with O’Neal, what with their outsized personalities, Superman nicknames and dominant inside presence.
“Everybody else is comparing us. I don’t compare myself to Shaq. I’m Dwight Howard,” he said. “We just have had some similar things that have happened to us. We both started in Orlando, got traded to the Lakers. It’s nothing that we can control.”
What Howard controlled involved having a great performance on the same night the Lakers honored another great center.
“I’m happy for him. He’s done a lot of great things for the NBA and also for the Lakers. He deserves it. He deserves to have his number retired for all the hard work he’s put in. that’s what we all want as players is to have our numbers retired. he’s one of the greatest to ever play. he’s one of the funniest guys off the court and he made it fun for a lot of guys in LA.”
Howard can do that, too.
Follow L.A. Daily News Lakers beat writer Mark Medina on Twitter. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org