With about three and a half minutes remaining in the third quarter of the Rockets-Spurs game on Tuesday night, Spurs forward Aron Baynes gave Dwight Howard a bear hug.
Baynes isn’t the first opponent to hug Howard this season and he won’t be the last. And he didn’t do it because Howard’s a nice guy – even though he seems it.
But with under four minutes to go in the third quarter, San Antonio head coach Gregg Popovich, who turned 65 on Tuesday, called for the Hack-A-Howard.
“We’ve done it a lot,” Popovich said. “We’ve fouled guys for 10 years.”
On Tuesday, it blew up in his face.
“I figured they were going to do it,” Howard said. “It was Pop’s birthday. I figured they were going to do it. I’m just happy I made most of them.”
The Rockets had a three-point lead at that point and went on an 11-6 run to finish the quarter. They won the game 97-90, beating the cross-state rival Spurs for the third straight time this season.
Howard made 9-of-14 free throws in the third quarter once the Hack-A-Howard began.
“I just kept telling myself to concentrate,” Howard said. “If I make them, that’s great. If I miss them, just try to get back on defense. And I think I could have been a lot better from the free throw line tonight but I was pretty happy that I made some of them.”
Howard finished the game 13-of-25 free throws. He missed at other times during the game, but when the Spurs decided to put him on the line intentionally, he made them pay.
“That’s what he has to do to get us out of it,” Spurs center Tim Duncan said. “He made free throws and he hurt us with them. He was at 40 percent the last couple of games. For whatever reason, it seems like a lot of people break out of their slumps when they play us.”
The Hack-A-Howard actually helped the Rockets on Tuesday. Certainly it wouldn’t have if Howard didn’t make his free throws. But the big man did make his free throws and it gave the Rockets a nice break in the third quarter. They out-scored the Spurs 33-18 in the pivotal third after entering the second half facing a seven-point hole.
But aside from just helping the Rockets get some free points, Hack-A-Howard gave some key players breathers. Head coach Kevin McHale said he was getting ready to make some substitutions in the third quarter but once Popovich began to foul, it gave the Rockets (who had a short bench on Tuesday) a chance to rest.
Sure, that strategy can kill the Rockets’ offensive rhythm. One problem with that on Tuesday: the Rockets didn’t really have all that much offensive rhythm without their leading scorer James Harden.
“I think today, we were struggling on offense the majority of the game,” Rockets forward Terrence Jones said, “so when they started doing that, I think it gave us a break from struggling.”
For the season, Howard is shooting 52.2 percent from the free throw line. Now, that’s not good, but it’s his best mark since 2010-11. He has shot under 50 percent in the past two seasons.
“I mean, I feel very confident in Dwight when teams do that,” Jones said. “When teams do that, it doesn’t bother me at all. I believe in him to knock down these free throws.”
-- Dave Zangaro, CSN Houston