The emotional reunion of Dwight Howard and the Orlando Magic, the team he spurned for a chance to shine in LA, saw its anticipated fireworks fizzle like a dud…or thud. Howard clanked 9 of 21 free throws as the Magic turned the tables on their former superstar and utilized a weakness they endured during his tenure with them – the charity stripe. Orlando hacked Howard down the stretch for a 113-103 win and a bit of payback for his public departure.
Many, maybe even most, will attribute the 4th quarter collapse to the hack-a-strategy, citing it as the reason behind lost momentum and Laker defensive inefficiency. But, the Lakers suffered from their atypical slow start and mellow defensive energy from jump ball. LA allowed the Magic to shoot 50% from the field as Orlando dished out 34 assists, 13 from Jameer Nelson to go with 19 points. They moved the ball and over-rotated the Laker defense to find wide-open shots throughout the night. Aaron Afflalo dropped 30 points in front of his home crowd, and Glen Davis added 23.
Despite their lackluster night defensively and Dwight’s brick laying at the line, the Lakers remained close, but could never create the separation necessary to put the Magic away. Kobe contributed 34 on 27 shots, and MWP put up 15 on 13 shots, shooting a tick under 42% from the field and jacking 17 threes with even less efficiency. Dwight registered another double-double with 21 and 15 boards, but faltered from the line. Muir High School grad and head coach Jacque Vaughn announced he would foul Dwight, employing a little gamesmanship to help his cause, in the right situation. He was true to his word.
A lob from Kobe to Dwight late in the 3rd quarter stretched the Laker lead to 75-69. The Lakers looked poised to make a run. The Magic decided this was their time. Dwight shot 10-18 from the line as Vaughn started the free throw line parade at the 38-second mark in the 3rd quarter. He went 1-4 over those final seconds, so the Magic remained vigilant. When Howard checked back into the game, the Lakers led 84-81 with 7 minutes to go. Orlando wasted little time and put him on the line mercilessly. With each miss, the Magic responded with a basket on the other end, highlighted by back-to-back threes by Nelson and J.J. Reddick, sparking an 8-0 run and a 98-89 lead with 3:20 to go in the 4th. The Magic outscored the Lakers 31-19 over the last six minutes, but D’Antoni refused to take Howard out of the game.
The boldest move so far in the seven-game life of D’Antoni’s Laker career, Mike D decided to confront Dwight’s free throw ills in the most challenging of circumstances. This is a move for the future. Teams are going to foul Dwight, and if Dwight immediately goes to the bench when it happens, a coach empowers the opponent, not his player. The psychological impact of taking Dwight out, especially against his former team, negatively impacts his free throw progress, making it an even larger issue.
Dwight knows that he must improve from the line better than anyone, and teams will continue to test the Lakers at key moments to remind him. However, by leaving him in against his former team, with whom he has such a rocky past, D’Antoni motivates Dwight positively, even though it surely cost the team a W. He is making a long term investment, letting Dwight fail now, as opposed to later, so he can learn from it, fix it.
For D’Antoni, this is essentially the pre-season. He is still tinkering with the team, preparing them for the long road ahead. Now, when Dwight feels a hug from a player as the ball crosses half court in the future, he won’t feel so alone standing fifteen feet away from his nemesis. He knows he has the confidence of his coach, the first step in overcoming the hack-a-strategy, when it really counts, in June.