OAKLAND, Calif. – Dwight Howard made all seven of his free throws in last week's victory over the Golden State Warriors, a landmark accomplishment for the Houston Rockets center, given his career-long struggles at the foul line. In the locker room after the game, Howard turned toward a trash basket and tossed in a crumpled piece of paper.
"Eight for 8," he bellowed in front of his laughing teammates.
Howard's big smile and silliness – missing, at times, during his lone, lost season with the Los Angeles Lakers – have returned. So, too, has his dominance.
"He is in a good place and back to being a dominating center in the league," Rockets forward Chandler Parsons said. "Everyone on our team and in our city has embraced his personality and taken him in and love him being in Houston. … I wouldn't want anyone else as my center."
Howard has needed some time to transition to the Rockets. In a one-point loss to the Lakers on Nov. 7, he missed 11 free throws. He averaged 16.7 points and 11.7 rebounds in November – respectable but not what he expected from himself.
Howard says he now has a "clear head," and it's shown: He's averaging 19.3 points and 15 rebounds while making 60.3 percent of his free throws.
"It took a couple games," Howard said. "I said, 'OK, that's the first 20 games. I got those out of the way.' I see what this team needs me to do to be effective …
"I understand that people want me to come down and score 30 points a night and 30 rebounds. That's not what it's going to take for us to win."
Said Rockets guard James Harden: "He's doing everything we ask him to do."
Howard cites an improved diet and mentoring from former Rockets general manager Carroll Dawson as reasons for his increased production. Howard has also spent a lot of his recent off nights in Houston working on his offensive game in a suburban high school gym. Assistant coach Greg Buckner attends the sessions and works with Howard on his post drills and free throws.
"It's really helping me with my touch and my free throws, just the little things," Howard said.
Howard has been one of the NBA's worst free-throw shooters for years. He shot 49 percent the past two seasons and hasn't cracked 60 percent since his rookie season.
Recently, Howard learned while watching video that he needed to stop leaning back on his attempts. Assistant coach Kelvin Sampson told him to look at the rim and say, "eyes, target, focus," before shooting. All the improvement Howard has shown this month was tempered when he went 5 of 13 from the line in the Rockets' loss to the Sacramento Kings on Sunday.
"It's all mental," Howard said.
Howard and the Rockets need to show more consistency in the tough Western Conference to land a high playoff seed. The Rockets' 16-9 record has them in fifth place in the West, but they've lost to the Lakers without Kobe Bryant and some of the worst NBA teams in Philadelphia, Utah and Sacramento. Houston is also just 6-6 on the road.
Howard said he and Harden have to be more accountable for keeping the Rockets focused and playing at a high level.
"It starts with me and James," Howard said. "We have to get into these guys when they are not ready to play and set a better example. We have to do a better job. We cannot let things like this continue to happen."