While Dwight Howard got plenty of free-throw practice in leading the Los Angeles Lakers to another victory, nothing has come easy for the Atlanta Hawks lately.
Howard and the red-hot Lakers appear to be catching the sinking Hawks at an opportune time on Wednesday night when they visit Atlanta in search of a fifth straight win.
After eight years with the Magic, Howard put together a huge performance in his first trip to Orlando since his offseason trade to the Lakers. The All-Star center took advantage of the Magic's Hack-a-Howard strategy, finishing with a season-high 39 points and 16 rebounds in a 106-97 victory on Tuesday.
Howard, a league-worst 47.8 percent free-throw shooter entering the contest, made 25 of 39 (64.1 percent) from the foul line and matched his own NBA record for attempts in a game.
"I think professionally it was really big for him,'' Kobe Bryant said of Howard's night. "Coming into this environment, playing as well as he did, it's big for his confidence.''
Los Angeles (34-31) has won 17 of 23 since bottoming out at eight games under .500 on Jan. 23. With their fourth straight win and ninth in 11 games, the Lakers regained a half-game lead over Utah for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference.
Howard looks to continue his tear Wednesday after averaging 24.8 points and 16.3 rebounds in his last four games. The Atlanta native had 11 points on 5-of-12 shooting and only made two trips to the line in a 99-98 home win over the Hawks on March 3.
Bryant led the way in that victory, scoring of 11 of his 34 in the fourth quarter and hitting the go-ahead layup with nine seconds left. He also threw down a memorable one-handed dunk over Josh Smith as the Lakers held on after blowing a 16-point second-half advantage.
The Lakers have scored 107.0 per game - 4.5 above their season average - in their 11 contests since the All-Star break. They'll try to stay hot against an Atlanta team that has averaged 80.5 points and hit 10 for 40 from 3-point range in their last two losses.
The Hawks (34-29) were the latest victim in the Heat's 19-game winning streak, losing 98-81 at Miami on Tuesday for their sixth loss in seven games. Smith led the Hawks with 15 points.
"We just got beat by a really good basketball team,'' Hawks coach Larry Drew said.
Atlanta, on the other hand, isn't playing well. After sitting fourth in the East heading into March, the Hawks enter this contest tied with Boston for sixth. They'll try to get back on track as they start a stretch with five of six at home, but they're just 3-4 in their last seven at Philips Arena.
To make matters worse, they lost Jeff Teague late in the third quarter Tuesday to a sprained left ankle, leaving the point guard's status in question against the Lakers.
Teague had eight points on 3-of-13 shooting against the Lakers last week, while Smith had 19 points, seven rebounds and seven assists.
Al Horford finished with a team-high 24 points, but pulled down only five rebounds while battling Howard. Horford is averaging 22.2 points on 60.7 percent shooting in his last 13 games overall.
The Lakers, who make their first trip to Philips Arena in more than two years, seek their fifth straight win over the Hawks.
Howard has lost six consecutive games in Atlanta, including the postseason.