By Fran Blinebury, NBA.com
HOUSTON — This being the NBA playoffs, there were pre-game fireworks, flames roaring up almost to the ceiling and canned music cranked to absurd levels.
But by far the loudest sounds to come out of the Rockets’ 122-120 overtime loss to the Blazers in Game 1 were: Clank! Clank! Clank! Clank!
Yup, Dwight Howard shooting free throws.
His team down by nine points with 4 1/2 minutes left in regulation time, Blazers coach Terry Stotts needed a dramatic shift and there are few things fraught with more raw thrills than the sight of the eight-time All-Star at the foul line in the fourth quarter.
So one of the key subplots to watch as the series continues will be Stotts’ willingness to intentionally hack Howard and he says he won’t be shy.
“If I think it’s in our best interest to do it, we will,” he said. “I had no qualms about using it going into the game, and I feel the same way now.”
Stotts instructed his team to intentionally foul Howard on three consecutive possessions. Howard made the first two free throws to the howling delight of the Toyota Center throng. But then he missed four in a row as Portland went on a 7-0 run that turned around the game and could ultimately turn the series.
Howard was a 54.7 percent foul shooter during the regular season and made 26 of 40 (65 percent) in four games against the Blazers. He managed just 9 of 17 in Game 1.
“That changed (the game) somewhat,” Rockets coach Kevin McHale said of the strategy. “We missed some free throws. They came just pushing it down and we didn’t defend…then we were kind of back on our heels. They pushed it up on us.”
More important, the Blazers pushed the Rockets over the edge.
Ten years into his career, free-throw woes remain an old, familiar tale with Howard.
The Spurs’ Gregg Popovich, just named Coach of the Year for the third time, has often said he hates the “Hack-a-________” tactic and would be in favor of eliminating it with a rule change. But even Popovich readily employs it to help his team.
Stotts is not so dismissive and refuses to buy into the notion that fouling Howard (or any other inept foul shooter) somehow taints the game.
“I was thinking about this because I was kinda anticipating the question,” Stotts said. “There were over 1200 NBA games played this season. How many times was it used in over 1200 games? Ten or 20 times in over 1200 games, 48-minute games?
“So to change the rule for something that isn’t used that very much? I think it adds excitement to the game, to be honest. When he made his first two, the crowd erupted. It adds interest. It adds interest whether we’re going to foul him or not. It adds interest whether he’s going to make them or not.”
Howard at the foul line in the fourth quarter is like seeing a member of the Wallenda family on a tightrope, with so much hanging in the balance.
From Wilt Chamberlain to Shaquille O’Neal to Howard to any player who has ever stood there with his knees knocking, arm wobbling and tossing up bricks with a game on the line, it has always been a silly debate.
How is hacking Howard any different than intentionally walking Detroit Tigers slugger Miguel Cabrera? And in the case of baseball, Cabrera doesn’t even get a chance to swing the bat. All Howard has to do is learn to make his free throws and everybody will leave him alone.
The fact is there are prime time players and those who say they are.
Watch Howard at the end of a Rockets’ practice. He’ll stand there and calmly stroke them in eight, nine, 10 in a row without a flinch.
Now watch him the next time the Blazers, or anybody else, puts him on the spot.
“I think it adds a little drama,” said Stotts with a grin.
The loudest noise in the room: Clank!
Sometimes you can hear a win drop.