DALLAS — Smiling, singing and dancing, a carefree, 6-foot-11, muscle-bound and shirtless greeter welcomed reporters into the winning locker room as if they were coming in for an after-work Happy Hour and drinks were on the house.
“File in everybody, come on, file in,” Dwight Howard said merrily, waving his arms and directing the throng inside.
Life is good when you make your free throws and Howard had just dropped seven of them on eight attempts in a span of 59 seconds midway through fourth quarter. He thwarted the Dallas Mavericks’ Hack-a-Dwight strategy and the points likely saved the Rockets from another embarrassing last-minute collapse.
“I looked like Reggie Miller tonight from the line,” Howard boasted after the 117-115 victory in which he scored nine of his 21 points from the free-throw line on 11 attempts. That’s 82 percent for a 53-percent foul shooter.
“We’re 6-1 when they Hack-a-Dwight,” Howard boasted. “Look it up. The only one we lost was to the Lakers.”
That stat remains unofficial, but it has merit. With 4:20 to go and Houston leading Dallas, 107-97, Mavs coach Rick Carlisle, desperate to stop Houston blow-bys to the rim, ordered the hacks. Howard made the first two. Hacked again. He split the next two. Hacked again. He made both as the crowd groaned. The Rockets led 112-101, a plus-1 advantage through the 59 seconds of hacks.
Carlisle called off the dogs. Yet on Houston’s next possession following a Vince Carter 3-pointer, Howard was fouled in the act of shooting. Two-for-two — 114-104.
“He made enough that Rick [Carlisle] quit doing it,” Rockets coach Kevin McHale said. “That’s the key. He made 9-of-11. Believe me, if you make enough, the other team quits doing it.”
He made so many that he stole the spotlight from 35-year-old Mavs forward Dirk Nowitzki, who had 38 points and 17 rebounds as he awaits a possible 12th All-Star berth Thursday night.
On Tuesday against San Antonio, Dwight went 9-for-14 during a third-quarter Hack-a-Howard phase. The Rockets won the quarter, 33-18. Dwight still only managed to go 13-for-25 from the line in the 97-90 win.
“Dwight’s making his free throws. He made them last night, he made them tonight,” McHale said. “I guess I’ll take the points if you’re standing there and you don’t have to do anything to get points. It does muck up the game and it does slow things down, but I mean I’ll take the points if all you got to do is stand there and shoot free throws all night.”
That’s not typically a great image of Howard: stiff-legged and flicking bricks.
But, give the man credit, he’s making the pressure free throws, for whatever reason, but he still struggles so mightily on so many trips to the free throw line, for whatever reason. He offered a familiar refrain about his success on this night, yet still no explanation for why it can’t happen more often than not.
“I just stepped up, I didn’t think too much, I just went up there and shot ’em,” Howard said. “And when I do that I’m a lot better than getting up there and thinking what’s going to happen, the outcome, so I was a lot better tonight.
“It gives them [his teammates] more confidence in me and also the coaching staff. They see how much I work on it every day in practice. So, to get in the game and knock ’em down when we need it is key for our team.”
Yes, life is good when you make your free throws.