The Los Angeles Lakers have lost five of their last seven games, which means they're currently in the midst of their 47th crisis of the still-young season. Their latest defeat, a 107-105 road loss to the Houston Rockets, stung quite sharply. Leading by ten heading into the fourth quarter, the Lakers gave up 34 points in the final 12 minutes. They might have won anyway, though, if Dwight Howard hadn't missed 5-of-10 free throws in the fourth (including a 2-for-7 stretch) as the Rockets resorted to a Hack-a-Howard strategy.
After the game, reporters naturally asked Howard about his struggles. But he chose to place the blame for the loss on the entire team and not his specific problems at the line. Watch his comments above and read them below, as transcribed by Adi Joseph at USA Today:
"We allowed them to get back into the game. It wasn't just about free throws. ... It wasn't just about me missing free thows toward the end. We've got to do a better job defending.
"That's fine. That's fine. People going to say what they're going to say. But at the end of the day, the reason we lost is not my free throws. That didn't lose us the game. Our defense was not there in the fourth quarter." [...]
"Why should he take me out?" Howard asked, indignantly. "Like I said, the more I continue to practice, my free throws are going to fall. But there's other things you can do on the court to help your team. It's not just about the free throws."
Over the past year and change, Howard has acted selfishly and waffled on decisions to the detriment of the Orlando Magic and several potential suitors. In this case, though, he's absolutely correct. For his career, Howard is a 58.4 percent shooter from the free-throw line, including a career-worst 49.1 percent last season. In fact, Howard's 8-of-16 mark in this game (the same percentage he shot in the fourth quarter) actually improved his mark for 2012-13 to 46.7 percent. Missed Dwight Howard free throws is a known factor in any Lakers strategy. Mike D'Antoni can always choose to keep Howard out of games in key moments, of course, but that's a difficult decision if the Lakers center is as important to the team's long-term goals as he seems to be. Phil Jackson never made a habit of benching Shaquille O'Neal in the midst of ugly Hack-a-Shaq stretches, and those teams did just fine.
The problem for the Lakers right now is that they haven't played to expectations in several presumed areas of strength. Interior defense and scoring depend heavily on Howard, and the team's struggles there can be assigned to his less-than-stellar play. Yet those issues are team-wide problems, and Howard can't be responsible for all of them. For one thing, he's not 100-percent healthy — his still-recovering back can only carry so much of the load.
On the other hand, Howard's national reputation is low enough right now that deflecting blame for the team's problems — or, to be more accurate, mentioning larger issues of which he's a big part — won't sit well with many fans and commentators. As a high-profile player who brought very high expectations to Los Angeles, the team's struggles double as his own. When the Lakers fail, Howard does as well, no matter how many free throws he makes.
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