HOUSTON — Dwight Howard looked at the Lakers’ weaknesses fulfilling an injury-laden roster and ran away from it.
Four months later, the Lakers looked at Howard’s weaknesses and exploited them.
The Lakers’ 99-98 win Thursday over the Houston Rockets at Toyota Center didn’t just happen because of Steve Blake’s magical three-pointer shortly before time expired. In the truest case of irony, the Lakers also walked off the court victorious because they forced Howard to do something he often failed to do with the Lakers.
Make free throws.
Yes, the Lakers adopted the so-called “Hack a Dwight” strategy, which entails intentionally fouling him. The Lakers did so in hopes Howard would miss most of those attempts and grant the Lakers extra possession.
The strategy worked.
Howard shot 5 of 16 from the foul line, and missed seven free throws in the last 3 1/2 minutes. The quick fouls limited Rockets guard James Harden after exploding for 35 points.
“I thought the tide would turn,” Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni said. “Harden is tough to guard one on one. I’d rather have Dwight there instead of Harden. That’s not going to work all the time.”
But it worked this time, leaving Howard to take responsibility for his poor free-throw shooting. Well, kind of.
“Our free throws were terrible,” Howard said. “We just have to keep working. I have to get back in the gym and continue to work and they will fall.”
Never mind that the rest of the Rockets shot 28 of 36 (77.7 percent) from the foul line. Or that Howard offered that tired excuse last season after shooting 57.8 percent from the line, nearly mirroring his career 57.7 percent mark. Or that his vow to block out distractions rarely materializes.
It was an image the Lakers were too familiar with, but this time it didn’t yield frustration. It prompted something else.
“I was laughing when we were trying to foul him,” said Lakers guard Jodie Meeks, who’s friends with Howard. “He was juking around. It’s funny.”
It’s also funny D’Antoni adopted this tactic after ridiculing the strategy last year, arguing it disrupted the game flow and ruined the sport’s entertainment value.
All of it provided a sense of gleeful irony.
“That doesn’t change anything, but that doesn’t mean you won’t use it if it’s out there,” D’Antoni said, laughing. “I’m not crazy. but if i could change it, I would change the rule.”
Even so, D’Antoni often kept Howard late in games when opponents adopted the strategy.
Sometimes the vote of confidence worked.
In his visit in March to Orlando for the first time since leaving the Magic, Howard tied his own NBA record for free throw attempts by shooting 25-for-39 from the foul line. Plenty of times, it backfired.
Why would D’Antoni keep Howard late in the game when his foul shooting often tilted the balance in a bad way?
“Well, We had to try to resign him,” D’Antoni said with a chuckle.
Howard left, though, leaving the Lakers adopting a different strategy.
“It was mainly they had a really good rhythm and we were struggling shooting the ball,” Lakers guard Steve Blake said. “I think that’s probably why we went to it. If we were still controlling the game and what not, we might not have. Even when he made it, we stuck with it and it worked. That was good game planning by coach.”
And one that helped make Howard’s first game against his former team go sour.
Follow L.A. Daily News Lakers beat writer Mark Medina on Twitter. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org