HOUSTON –– Call it revenge of the snubbed.
When Patrick Beverley’s desperation banker bounced off the side of the rim, it kicked off the kind of gleeful celebration that the Lakers always hoped to have with Dwight Howard on the court.
Instead it came at his expense and it couldn’t have been more sweet and delicious if it were dipped in chocolate.
There was the final image of a leaping Howard closing out way too late on Steve Blake’s game-winning 3-pointer from the left wing.
There were those dozen free-throw attempts that the Lakers gave Howard in the fourth quarter that he might not have had more trouble getting down if he’d been trying to swallow logs.
It was a 99-98 L.A. win in the first week of November that revealed precious little about how Howard’s old team or his new one will look in the meat of the schedule.
But it was an opportunity for the Lakers to exorcise four months of abandonment feelings left by the only high profile star to ever pull up stakes and walk out on the NBA’s most glamorous franchise and it was a night for the Rockets to remember that though they won the $80-million free agent tug ‘o war, their prize doesn’t come without inherent flaws.
“We’ll see them again,” Howard said.
“There’s so many emotions, we’d have to go through and array of stuff,” said Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni. “We win on the road the first time. We beat a good team. We played better. I mean, down there somewhere, yeah, I’m human. It’s great (to beat Howard).
“He made his choice, which is good. You’ve got to respect that. He’s fine. They’re gonna have a great team and he’s a great player.”
However, in this game Howard was little more than average, scoring 15 points, grabbing 14 rebounds and looking confined and uncomfortable.
While the Lakers’ entire season — and maybe long-range future — is on hold while they wait on Kobe Bryant’s return from a torn Achilles’ tendon, the Rockets’ ascendancy to the elite category of championship contenders will be slowed by the Achilles’ heel of Howard shooting free throws.
Little has changed over his 10 NBA seasons to make him little more than a coin flip at the foul line and that hasn’t changed at all with the scenery from Orlando to Los Angeles to Houston.
A year ago, as Howard’s coach, D’Antoni chafed at the rules when opponents intentionally fouled his All-Star center when games were on the line.
But with the Rockets wiping out a 19-point Laker lead and riding James Harden’s 35 points to surge in front midway through the fourth quarter, D’Antoni wasn’t at all averse to hacking the big man at every opportunity.
Howard finished up shooting 5-for-16 on free throws for the night and was 5-for-12 in the fourth quarter. From the time the Lakers first hacked Howard with 3:24 left in the game, Harden never scored again.
“I thought it went real well because we took Harden out of the game,” D’Antoni said. “I think it worked pretty good. And he made foul shots. That’s about as good as he’ll do.
“Harden’s tough to guard 1-on-1 and I’d rather have Dwight there instead of Harden. That’s not gonna work all the time.
“That doesn’t mean you’re not gonna use it if it’s out there. I’m not crazy. But if I could change it, I would probably change the rule.”
The Rockets were trying to get to a 5-1 start for the first time since 2007 even though their play at both ends of the floor has been uneven. Once again Howard and his Twin Towers partner Omer Asik struggled to find a way to function effectively on offense.
Howard, for all his athleticism, has never been a guy who could go on the blocks with 1-on-1 moves and create open shots for his teammates. For now, he is again thriving by catching and finishing around the basket, playing for the first time in more than a year without pain from back surgery or a torn labrum in his shoulder.
It was a date that Howard tried not to circle and wanted to treat as just another day on the calendar whenever asked about last year’s rocky marriage with Bryant that had all the charm and warm feelings of a drive-thru chapel in Las Vegas.
In a pregame chat with reporters in which he said he was still several weeks away from taking part in practice, Bryant had actually complimented Howard.
“He always wants to compete with the all-time greats, the Chamberlains, the Shaqs, the Olajuwons,” Bryant said. “This year should be the year when he can start putting up those types of numbers — 25, 26 points a game.”
But as long as there is that gaping hole in his repertoire at the foul line, the question of whether Howard can carry a team all the way will linger. He’s currently shooting a career-low 49.3 percent on free throws.
“You just got to make them,” Howard said. “I was terrible tonight at the line. We just gotta make them pay next time.
“Every loss hurts. Nobody likes to lose. So it’s very upsetting that we lost the way we did.”