When Dwight steps to the line, Kobe needs something to gnaw on. (Getty Images)
It's not exactly breaking news that Los Angeles Lakers big man Dwight Howard doesn't have the smoothest, most successful stroke from the foul line; through his first seven NBA seasons, the All-NBA center shot a touch below 60 percent from the stripe. Over the last two years, though, even that nothing-to-write-home-about level of accuracy has eluded him, as Howard hit just 49.1 percent of his free throws during his final season with the Orlando Magic, and entered Tuesday night's game against the Brooklyn Nets at just 50.5 percent through 10 games — and that includes a 15-for-19 outlier against the Portland Trail Blazers in the season's second game.
When you've got a guy who's averaging right around one point scored per offensive possession (as Howard is, according to Synergy Sports Technology), who's shooting 69.5 percent when he gets the ball in the restricted area (as Howard is, according to NBA.com's stat tool) and who's been worse than a 50-50 proposition from the line for the better part of the past 66 games, fouling him as much as possible and as early as possible seems like a pretty sound strategy, percentages-wise. Especially when Howard offers the sort of effort he did early in the fourth quarter:
I mean, it's not quite Andris Biedrins, but it's not far off. (Well, it was far off, rim-wise, but you get what I'm saying.)
Howard's second airballed freebie in less than three weeks came early in the fourth, perhaps emboldening Nets head coach Avery Johnson to deploy a "Hack-a-Howard" strategy later in the frame, with the two teams frequently within one or two possessions of swapping the lead and the Nets looking to take advantage of Howard's wonky stroke. As Kelly Dwyer noted in his postgame column, the intentional-foul gambit seemed to work pretty well, as Howard made two and missed two on his next two trips, limiting the Lakers to one point each trip.
And yet, with the Nets clinging to a one-point lead and less than four minutes remaining, Johnson abandoned the tactic, preferring to play it straight; L.A. outscored Brooklyn 12-6 down the stretch to earn a 95-90 win. The Lakers as a team finished 19 for 37 (51.4 percent) at the line on the night; Howard as an individual went just 7 for 19 (36.8 percent), and just 3 for 10 in the fourth quarter.
So, if Howard was so rickety at the line, and the strategy was holding the Lakers to one point a trip, why did Johnson change course? From Stefan Bondy of the New York Daily News:
"Kobe was trying to counter it by getting up a 3-point shot. The referee came and talked to us about it ... he said, 'If the ball goes in, it's not going to be good. If you guys are going to foul, foul a little bit earlier.'"
Instead of fouling earlier — or tricking Bryant into taking a bad shot by faking to foul Howard — Johnson abandoned the philosophy.
First off: Pretty friendly ref, huh? Secondly: Just plain huh?
There doesn't seem to be a ton of logic there; yes, Bryant was letting it fly as soon as he stepped over half-court in the hope of getting an in-the-act-of-shooting call that would result in three shots rather than two, and yes, NBA players and coaches have a (perhaps too) healthy fear of the Mamba's shot-making abilities, but switching things up for fear that Kobe's going to just start canning 47-footers feels kind of strange. That said, "If the ball goes in, it's not going to be good" is a pretty good analysis of the kind of situation the Nets would face if Kobe did start making it rain from half-court, so maybe Johnson just found the argument too persuasive to contradict. I'm willing to bet Nets fans wouldn't have minded seeing Howard make a few more late-game trips to the line, though.
For his part, new Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni didn't seem to mind the idea of opponents providing a steady drumbeat for Howard's march to the stripe. From Dave McMenamin of ESPN Los Angeles:
"The thing with Dwight, I hope you know, if they start Hack-a-Dwight and he's making one out of two, that's a possession," D'Antoni said. "That's one point per possession. That's pretty good basketball, especially down the stretch. So that's fine. If they want to do that, that's great. I got no problem with it."
We'll see if Coach Pringles is singing the same tune if Howard misses everything a couple more times.
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