HOUSTON – Dwight Howard had one last chance to save the Houston Rockets – as well as himself from a same old embarrassing fate. So Howard stretched out his 6-foot-11 frame and leaped toward Steve Blake lining up behind the 3-point line.
Howard fell short of his intended target, missing a game-saving block as his old teammate arched in the winning shot with little more than a second remaining.
As the Los Angeles Lakers celebrated, Howard raised his hands in disappointment, bemoaning the Rockets' defensive breakdown. Of course, Howard's new teammates could have easily made the same gesture back to him: Seven of Howard's 11 missed free throws during the Lakers' Hack-A-Howard strategy were key in L.A.'s 99-98 victory over Houston.
"It was very upsetting to lose the way we did," Howard said.
Howard has shown little sympathy for the Lakers after he left them in free agency last summer, declaring that he took less money to be "happier" with a championship-caliber team. Howard said his first post-breakup meeting with the Lakers was just another game. It was time for everyone to move on, he said.
The Lakers and their fans didn't appear to be quite so ready to forgive. Howard was the first major free agent to leave the franchise. And he did so before a season that has begun with Kobe Bryant on the sideline trying to recover from Achilles surgery.
"It's always a big deal when a free agent of that caliber is going somewhere else," Bryant said. "That's always the case. That's true with any free agent. It's expected."
During their lone season together, Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni weathered a lot of criticism for not seeing eye-to-eye with Howard – and for not making him more of a focus in his offense. D'Antoni reminded everyone this week that the Rockets' offense – led by guard James Harden – is not too different than that of the Lakers.
L.A.'s first meeting with Howard since his departure gave D'Antoni a chance to show that the coach's offense might not have been the only issue in last season's struggles. Howard's post game is still a work in progress, even though he's now working with two of the best post players ever: Rockets coach and former Boston Celtics forward Kevin McHale and ex-Rockets center Hakeem Olajuwon.
Howard also is one of the NBA's worst free throw shooters, so D'Antoni's defensive game plan was simple: Smother him with 7-foot Pau Gasol and if needed, revert to Hack-A-Howard in the fourth quarter.
Howard only had six points at halftime. When the Rockets gave him a breather on the bench in the second half, they made their run to take the lead. Once Howard returned, D'Antoni eventually had the Lakers intentionally foul him to disrupt Harden, who had heated up on his way to 35 points.
"The tide turned and Harden is tough to guard 1-on-1," D'Antoni said. "I'd rather have Dwight finishing it up than Harden."
Howard missed 7 of 12 free throws from the 3:24 mark to when 53.8 seconds remained. No Rocket besides Harden scored during that stretch.
"I was in a rhythm and they started fouling Dwight," Harden said. "It kind of slows us down. It slows our pace down and what we like to do. Good coaching."
Harden had a chance to extend the Rockets' lead to four, but missed an 18-foot jumper with 12.9 seconds left. Blake followed with his heroic 3-pointer, and the Lakers gave their former center a stinging loss.
Already, the Rockets have seen the warts that come with Howard. Against the Lakers, he made just five shots, had one offensive rebound and missed 11 of 16 free throws.
"My free throws were terrible," Howard said. "I just got to keep working. It was terrible tonight. I just got to go back in the gym and work on them some more and continue to work on it. It will fall."
In the end, D'Antoni got the best of Howard by using Howard's flaws against him the same way they were used against the Lakers last season. That will have to make do for Lakers fans until they get to see Howard in person on Feb. 19.
"He was always really determined to be more of an offensive player," Bryant said. "Here in Houston he will have more of an opportunity to do that. He always wanted to compete with some of the all-time greats, the [Wilt] Chamberlains, the [Shaquille O'Neals], the Olajuwons. This should be a year where he should be putting up those kind of numbers, 25, 26 points per game."