The Los Angeles Lakers on Thursday night faced their former center Dwight Howard and the Houston Rockets for the first time since the 27-year-old opted this offseason to sign with the Rockets on a four-year, $88 million deal.
As for the game, the Lakers were able to pull out a 99-98 win over Houston in the final seconds on a 3-pointer by Steve Blake over Howard. It was an encouraging sign that the Lakers were able to scrap out the victory for two reasons. One, they were able to get their first road win of the year after suffering 20-point losses in both of their first two road games against the Golden State Warriors and Dallas Mavericks, and two, they were able to defeat a team that is considered a Western Conference contender without their superstar Kobe Bryant.
The Lakers displayed great balance offensively in Thursday’s game. Six players scored in double figures, including three players off the NBA’s highest scoring bench. Jodie Meeks 18 points (5-of-7 3-point range), Wesley Johnson’s 16, and Jordan Farmar chipped in 11.
What the Lakers did Thursday night was a great team performance, but what was more of the story of the game was the performance of Howard. The 27-year-old scored 15 points on 5-of-10 shooting from the field including going 5-of-16 from the free throw line with 14 rebounds in 37 minutes played.
Although Howard did log 37 minutes on the floor, he did not contribute much outside of a dunk in the Rockets crucial 15-3 run that trimmed the Lakers lead to 74-72 with three minutes left in the third quarter. He instead picked up his fourth foul with a little over a minute left in the third quarter and did not reenter the game until just under six minutes to play in the fourth quarter.
When Howard took the floor in the fourth quarter he was detrimental to the Rockets chances of winning in a game that they trailed by as much as 17 points. In the final five minutes of the game, Howard committed one turnover, grabbed one rebound, and was 4-of-10 from the free throw line including missing 5-of-6 attempts in his last three trips to the charity strip.
The Lakers employed the Hack-A-Howard strategy late in the game, which became familiar to the team last season as opponents took advantage of Howard’s poor free throwing shooting. On Thursday, that strategy worked out for Mike D’Antoni‘s team as Howard missed arguably the two biggest free throw attempts with under 30 seconds left in the game that consequentially allowed the Lakers to take advantage of a chance to win the game on a 3-pointer from Blake with just seconds remaining.
What Howard displayed on the court Thursday was something that Lakers’ fans saw all last year, and that was the fact he does not have that killer’s instinct or desire to be a dominant force on offense. He simply does not have that type of mentality, as he is more of a fun-loving type of player.
His performance on Thursday indicated that he did not have any extra motivation to beat the Lakers, which was the organization he supposedly spent one unhappy year with under head coach Mike D’Antoni, who ran an offense that did not suit his game, and had a rocky relationship with his teammates, in particular Bryant.
Howard did not look a man possessed that wanted to show his former employer that he made the right choice by leaving Los Angeles, instead he was the same player that the Lakers saw last year. He was a non-factor for the most part of the game, especially in crunch time where he was a liability on the floor because of his poor free throw shooting and his inability to establish himself in low post.
It was more than anything surprising that he didn’t demand the ball on a consistent basis to try and punish his old team. Former players such as Shaquille O’Neal, Kenny Smith, and Charles Barkley following the game on TNT’s “Inside the NBA” voiced their displeasure on Howard’s lack of desire to dominant in Thursday’s game.
“I like Dwight,” Barkley said. “I think he’s a good player. He has too much talent not to be a great player. If he takes 15 to 20 shots, they’re going to have to double team him.”
Smith coincided with Barkley’s stance and stated that Howard should be demanding the ball on offense.
“He’s too talented to be average,” said Kenny Smith, a former Rocket. “We wouldn’t say this is he didn’t have the talent. It’s not we don’t like him. He’s a good guy. But he’s allowing himself to be average by not demanding the ball.”
And during TNT’s TV broadcast coverage of the game, Steve Kerr, who is a former NBA player and current color commentator for the network, stated that by the Lakers not re-signing Howard it may be a good move long-term for the franchise heading forward.
“In the long run, it’s going to be best for the Lakers. I don’t think they were going to be able to build a championship team with Howard and his huge contract,” Kerr said.
Last season, Howard had complained on several different occasions throughout the year that he was not getting enough touches on offense. This was believed to be one of many reasons why he signed with Houston, because he felt he would be able to get more shots attempts during the game and in particular big moments in the fourth quarter.
In Thursday’s game, James Harden took 14 more shot attempts than Howard, the offense played primarily through Harden down the stretch of the game, and the Lakers used the Hack-A-Howard strategy that both frustrated and threw off the rhythm of the Rockets’ leading scorer.
“I was in a rhythm and they started fouling Dwight,” Harden said following the Rockets’ third loss of the season. ” It kind of slows us down. It slows our pace down and what we like to do. Good coaching.”
With Howard on the team, the Rockets will have to endure game such as Thursday night where he will be fouled late in the game and more often than not will fail to make his free throws. This may be a little foreshadowing or it may not, but what if the Rockets have more games like Thursday night? What if Howard continues to struggle with his free throws and continues to play small in big games? And finally, what if Harden continues to take an overwhelming amount more shot attempts than Howard? Would it in fact create tension between both players?
Those questions may be just hypothetical scenarios, but the reality is that is what exactly happened to the Lakers last season with the three-time defensive player of the year. After one season with the team, Los Angeles knew what they had in Howard and that he was not a franchise cornerstone player to build your team around.
Although it is early in the season, it appears to be positive for the Lakers as they currently lie only one game behind the Rockets in the standings and are doing this without Howard or Bryant on the floor for them. The Lakers can also look forward beyond this year as they are poised with plenty of salary cap space to make big splashes next July with a free agent pool expected to be filled with the likes of LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony.
So with that said, the Lakers win last night not only handed the Rockets a loss, but a dose of reality of what’s to come with Howard as he is now their dilemma heading forward.
Photo Credit: Houstonrockets.com