Posts Tagged ‘Kevin McHale’

Plan B(osh) is better fit for Rockets


VIDEO: Fran Blinebury discusses Houston’s reported offer to Chris Bosh

ORLANDO, Fla. — The bad news for the Rockets is that it looks like their hopes of landing free agent Carmelo Anthony are fading fast.

The good new is their fall-back offer of a max contract to Chris Bosh may actually be a better fit.

That is the general consensus of a handful of coaches, general managers and scouts on hand at the Orlando Pro Summer League.

“On a team with Carmelo, [James] Harden and Dwight [Howard], on most nights one guy is gonna go home mad,” said one executive. “On a lot of other nights, two guys might go home mad. Then there would be those nights when all three are mad. I don’t think that’s a way to win a championship.”

Rockets general manager Daryl Morey was at the Amway Center to take in the action of his young wannabes, but was not commenting on reports that the team made an offer of a four-year, $85 million to $88 million contract to Bosh. He originally agreed to do a halftime interview on NBA TV with Isiah Thomas and Matt Winer, but backed out at the last minute.

A year ago, Morey and Rockets coach Kevin McHale got the club fined $150,000 when they arrived at the Summer League and promptly made premature comments about the signing of the free agent Howard. This time it’s zipped lips.

Bosh may not pack the scoring punch or the same A-list marquee appeal as Anthony, but he’s a much better fit for the Rockets’ offense.

“If you’re trying to draw a picture of the kind of player they need to blend right in pretty seamlessly in Houston, you’d come away with a likeness of Bosh,” said a scout. “He’s a stretch four that can make those 3-point shots that Houston loves. He’ll defend. And mostly, he’s not the kind of high-maintenance personality that you’d be taking on in Anthony. He’s the one who’s sacrificed the most in Miami. Carmelo and Harden are just too much alike in needing the ball and they would both have issues giving way to the other one at the end of games.”

Putting Bosh on the front line would be like allowing Howard to step into a time machine and go back to his days in Orlando when Rashard Lewis filled up the bucket with 3-pointers and the Magic went to the NBA Finals in 2009.

“That’s the kind of situation that Howard thrived in with the Magic,” said an assistant coach. “That’s when Dwight was at his best. With Rashard out there, he was able to open up the floor and created so much space for Dwight to go to work.

“The question that a lot of people had about Dwight going into last season was whether he was finally healthy again. Would that back hold up. It looked like it did and it’s safe to say that physically he’s back to being very close to his old self. What you want to see now is an offensive system that allows him to go back to being his old self. That’s Bosh.”

There was a time back in 2010 when Bosh was anything but a fall-back plan for the Rockets. The last time he was a free agent, Morey was knocking on his door one minute after the opening of the free agency period and wanted to make him the foundation of the team. Bosh chose then to join LeBron James and Dwyane Wade in Miami.

Now, four years later, Bosh is right back in their sights as the alternative to Anthony and would probably be the right target, even if Rockets weren’t originally aiming for him.

Big year and a bigger decision for Lowry


VIDEO: Kyle Lowry is one of the more coveted free agent point guards on the market

HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – Kyle Lowry faces the decision of his career: Cash in with the Raptors and maybe one day walk away a Canadian folk hero (you saw those crazed playoff crowds, right?), have faith in the leaky, but legendary Lakers or settle for a mere pittance to play with the King.

But wait, there’s more …

To start free agency at the stroke of midnight Tuesday, Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey and coach Kevin McHale were in Philadelphia seated in front of Lowry. The two men who shipped Lowry north of the border in the first place were now telling him how perfect he is for the team he actually aided in assembling.

Plotting a path to form a super team in Houston, Morey was hoarding drafts picks and the first-rounder he got from Toronto for Lowry two summers ago was supposed to be another carrot to finally lure Orlando into a deal for Dwight Howard. A month later Howard was traded to the Lakers, and the draft pick wound up in Oklahoma City as part of the package for James Harden. Howard, conveniently, followed as a free-agent acquisition last summer.

As Morey, McHale and Lowry dined, or whatever it is that goes on in these after-midnight meetings, Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri was working his own plan (reportedly a contract starting around $12 million) to keep the spark plug point guard behind Toronto’s resurgence, a spark plug Ujiri was prepared to trade to New York at the deadline if not for the reluctance of the  Knicks’ former regime to throw in a future first-round draft pick.

Meanwhile, back in South Florida, Heat president of basketball operations Pat Riley was maneuvering for his own meeting with free agency’s top point-guard target. The Riley pitch, if he gets to make it, will get straight to the point: Come to Sacrifice City and compete for these shiny rings with LeBron James.

Amazing what a career year will do for a guy’s fortunes. Lowry, not long ago down on his luck, last season averaged career highs in scoring (17.9 ppg), assists (7.4), minutes (36.2) and 3-point percentage (38.0), while tying his career-high in rebounds (4.7).

Many believed Lowry, 28, should have made his first All-Star team of his eight-year career. After the All-Star break he reinforced that notion by averaging 20.4 ppg, 7.1 apg and 5.1 rpg, while maintaining his bulldog approach to defense. The Raptors finished the season 20-10 and won a franchise-best 48 games, finishing above .500 for the first time since 2006-07.

So perhaps a contract starting at $12 million isn’t too high for this big-market franchise desperate to maintain its playmaker and elusive momentum.

Yet becoming just as desperate are the Miami Heat.

James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh are free agents, too. They’re waiting to finalize new contracts while Riley works to re-tool the roster. Big men, wing depth and a point guard are needed. On Tuesday, Heat target Marcin Gortat reached an agreement to return to the Washington Wizards at a price (five years, $60 million) far too rich for the Heat. Another report stated small forward Luol Deng will not sacrifice pay to play for Miami. A later report had Washington nearing a deal to bring back yet another Heat target, small forward Trevor Ariza.

The aggressive, 6-foot Lowry fits the Heat needs to a T. Only they won’t be able to match the Raptors’ reported offer and fill other needs. Earlier Tuesday, Jodie Meeks agreed to a free-agent deal with the Detroit Pistons for three years and $19 million, a hefty pay raise for a middling player, and one that would make it seem highly unlikely that Lowry could feel good about taking a deal that wouldn’t pay him much more.

The wild card here, as it always is with the Heat, is a lower pay grade is the price to play with LeBron. We’ve seen it with players nearing the end of their careers, but not necessarily from one in his prime.

Lowry has seven postseason games to his name since 2009 back with Houston when he reached the second round. All seven came this past season with Toronto. The Raptors, boasting an emerging star in DeMar DeRozan and rising talents in Terrence RossJonas Valanciunas and restricted free agent Patrick Pattersonlost a heartbreaker to Brooklyn in the first round.

For a franchise that has experienced two winning seasons in the last dozen, and has had its troubles keeping and recruiting star-level players, Lowry would be welcomed back as hero.

But then there’s always LeBron … or the Rockets … or the Lakers …

The decision of Lowry’s career will be coming soon.

Another big bang of free agents on tap

LeBron James has chosen to test the free-agent market this summer. (Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE)

LeBron James has chosen to test the free-agent market this summer. (Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE)

Most scientists believe it was roughly 14 billion years ago when a single point exploded to create the universe. Of course, it was a more thoroughly documented Big Bang four years ago that blew a hole in the NBA space/time continuum, sending the celestial bodies of LeBron James and Chris Bosh south to join Dwyane Wade in Miami.

Two championships and four Finals trips for the Heat later, the potential for another explosion is on us.

Carmelo Anthony’s declaration that he will opt out of the final year of his contract with the New York Knicks was the first stick of dynamite ahead of the July 1 start of the annual free-agent scramble. Then, Tuesday, LeBron told the Miami Heat that he was going to test the waters, too.

You can feel the ground quiver as the movers and the shakers in the league start to do their thing …

Who has the space?

There are a lot of big-name free agents on the market — or there will be July 1. But the number of teams who have enough space under the salary cap that would enable them to sign some of those big-money players … well, that’s a lot smaller. Here’s a list:

Miami Heat: Up to $55 million, assuming virtually everyone opts out of contracts.
Dallas Mavericks: Up to $32.4 million
Utah Jazz: Up to $29.6 million
Philadelphia 76ers: Up to $29.0 million.
Phoenix Suns: Up to $28.4 million.
L.A. Lakers: Up to $28.2 million.
Cleveland Cavaliers: Up to $23.4 million.
Orlando Magic: Up to $22.2 million.
Detroit Pistons: Up to $22.0 million.
Charlotte Hornets: Up to $19.5 million.
Atlanta Hawks: Up to $13.9 million.
Milwaukee Bucks: Up to $13.0 million.
Memphis Grizzlies: Up to $12.0 million, if Zach Randolph opts out of his final year.
Chicago Bulls: Up to $11.3 million if they use their one-time amnesty on Carlos Boozer.
Boston Celtics: Up to $9.3 million. (more…)

Riley puts heat on LeBron, Big 3 to ‘stay the course … and not run’


VIDEO: Heat boss Pat Riley is calling for everyone to “get a grip” and those who stay to reinvent themselves

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — Fifty-five minutes of Pat Riley unfiltered is the off-the-court equivalent of watching a Game 7 of The Finals go to triple overtime. You don’t want a miss a second of the action.

The Miami Heat’s boss was in rare form this morning in his postseason news conference, explaining where the Heat stands now after losing in The Finals to the Spurs and where they are headed with the huge decisions looming for the Big 3 of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in advance of free agency this summer, should they choose to opt-out of their current deals and test the waters.

Riley’s message to them all was clear. But he might as well have FaceTimed LeBron or at least hit him on Skype when talked about the need to “stay the course” and not “run for the first open door.”

Wade and Bosh have already expressed publicly their desire to stay in Miami and continue a partnership that has produced four straight trips to The Finals and two title-winning campaigns. LeBron is the only one who has not hinted publicly about which way he is leaning.

Riley mentioned all of the great dynasties of the past and how many if not all of them failed more than they succeeded in their annual quests to win titles. He spoke of how hard the process can be and of the certain trials and tribulations that accompany the triumphs for those teams that stick together in their quest for Larry O’Brien trophies.

“This stuff is hard,” Riley said. “And you’ve got to stay together if you’ve got the guts. And you don’t find the first door and run out of it.”

That’s tougher love than most men in Riley’s position are comfortable using. But most of those men don’t have the experience, backrground or list of accomplishments Riley has. Riley vowed to do whatever it takes to keep his crew together. He pointed to the Spurs and their bond that carried them from a crushing defeat in The Finals last year to a rematch this year and vengeance.

Riley called for mass reinvention, at least for everyone under 69 (his age) and the improvement from within that marked the Spurs’ spectacular run through the regular season and postseason.


VIDEO: Pat Riley talks about LeBron James and the Heat (more…)

Rockets left picking up pieces again

By Fran Blinebury, NBA.com

VIDEO: Lillard’s buzzer-beater sends Rockets home, Blazers to next round

PORTLAND, Ore.Damian Lillard’s “Rip Ciiiitttyyy!” shout was still bouncing off the walls and his dagger remained stuck right in their gut when Rockets team owner Leslie Alexander and club president Tad Brown stood in a back hallway of the Moda Center, heads down, eyes searching.

For what? For whom? Carmelo Anthony? Chris Bosh? LeBron James?

Will a few more high-dollar free agents finally get the Rockets out of the first round of the playoffs for only the second time since 1997? Is the idea to buy up every available big name in the NBA so there will be nobody left to do what the Blazers consistently did in the fourth quarter?

That is, perform down the stretch.

Clutch City, indeed. The Rockets routinely treated the fourth quarters like a wad of cash in the pocket of a drunken sailor and wound up with the same kind of what-happened hangover.

“This is the worst feeling I’ve ever had in my life,” Chandler Parsons said after he watched Lilllard run away from him in the last 0.9 seconds and into NBA lore.

Parsons, of course, is just 25 and quite likely too young yet to comprehend that if a basketball game is the worst loss you’ve ever suffered, then life has been pretty darned good.

Dwight Howard, on the other hand, just finished his 10th NBA season no closer to a championship than when he left Southwest Atlanta Christian Academy.

“It hurts,” Howard said. “We can’t grow anymore. We go home.”

The Rockets go home to an offseason of having to wonder if the combination of Howard and James Harden will ever enough to take the franchise back to the glory years of truly contending — and winning — or if they are simply pair of celebrities in search of a lead dog who can pull their wagon to a championship.

Harden is now working on three straight years and three straight series of shrinking in the playoffs. His 34 points in Game 6 was the first time he came close to looking like a front-line star. In his last three playoff series — vs. Miami in 2012, OKC in 2013 and now Portland — the only thing more bedraggled than his beard has been his shooting percentage. Is the playoff air, when teams can scheme against him for seven games and employ elite level defenders, too thin for Harden? He hardly ever shoulders the burden of responsibility or the mantle of leadership.

Howard has worked diligently with Hakeem Olajuwon, with the coaching staff, with anybody offering help, to improve his game and yet the coin toss odds on having him at the free-throw line and his happy-go-lucky persona will always leave questions until or unless he gets it all done.

“We didn’t win, so in my mind having a good regular season is nothing,” Howard said. “You’re sitting at home watching another team hold up a trophy. That’s what we all play for. So it hurts too be going home early. It’s hurts to be watching somebody [else] holding up the trophy. We wanted a chance to get it this season. This should just push us next season.

“I know it’s going to make me continue in the gym, continue to get better and also push these young guys so they can understand that you can’t take these moments for granted. Nothing’s promised. The playoffs aren’t promised. Rings aren’t promised. You gotta go out there and earn it.”

The bashing of coach Kevin McHale will sound like a bass drum throughout the summer and maybe it will be proven that he is not the one to guide them down the championship path. But McHale did not lose Game 6. He did not fail to tell his players not to give up anything but a 3-point shot in the last 0.9 seconds. He cannot turn back the clock and play like the Hall of Famer he was during all those years in Boston.

Sweeping McHale out of the door is not the answer. The team responds to him. They play for him. He has a year left on his contract at the team’s option and so you give it to him with a last chance.

The championing of Jeremy Lin as a creative cross between Kobe Bryant, Magic Johnson and Leonardo Da Vinci by his cult following will persist. Lin is a capable, hard-working player who has proven he belongs in the league. But he is not transcendent and, if the Rockets are going to make a big play in free agency this summer, he and Omer Asik will both be gone to make room under the salary cap.

“It’s a tough loss, but something we’ve got to learn from,” said Howard. “Like I said the whole series, we can’t take any possessions off. We can’t relax. Every bucket counts. Portland came in and played with a lot of confidence.

“We’ve got a great nucleus of guys. Everybody has to come back next season and see the mistakes we made this year as a team and try to learn from them so next year we don’t have situations like this.

“You’ve got to play with confidence. You can’t relax. Some of the guys on our team, including myself at times, we relaxed on the floor. Nothing is easy. I’ve been to the Finals. I’ve been to the Eastern Conference finals. I’ve been to the top and it’s not easy getting there.

“You’ve got to make everything count. I think that’s a big lesson for us all. No matter who we play, no matter what happens in the regular season, you can’t take any team for granted.

“Portland came out and played from the first game. … Those guys played together. Just watching their mentality on the floor, it was good. It was a seasoned team. So there’s a lot of things we can learn from this series and hopefully come back next year and be a lot better.”

McHale to return as Rockets’ coach

By David Aldridge, TNT

Kevin McHale enjoyed his best season as a head coach in 2013-14.

Kevin McHale enjoyed his best season as a head coach in 2013-14.

A brutal last-second loss to Portland on Friday that gave the Trail Blazers a 4-2 series victory in the first round of the playoffs will not cost Houston coach Kevin McHale his job. According to a source, the Rockets will bring McHale back for the 2014-15 season.

There was speculation that McHale was in trouble if the Rockets lost their series to Portland. Houston finished 54-28 this season and was the fourth seed in the Western Conference playoffs. After a slow start, the Rockets came on strong the second half of the season, as Dwight Howard and James Harden meshed better. But Houston couldn’t stop LaMarcus Aldridge in the first two games of the series, and the Rockets were slowed greatly by an injury to guard Patrick Beverley.

McHale is 172-152 (.531) in three seasons as Houston’s head coach, with a 4-8 playoff record, having lost two first-round series.

L.A.’s Law: Get him the ball

By Fran Blinebury, NBA.com

PORTLAND, Ore. — For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.

Newton’s third law.

LaMarcus Aldridge‘s Game 6 law.

Now it’s the Blazers’ turn.

After early foul trouble and a double-teaming defensive vise of big men shut off the scoring faucet, the Blazers’ leading scorer needs to come back.

“I’ll be better tonight. I’ll play a whole lot better than last game,” said Aldridge following Friday’s shootaround, after shooting just 3-for-12 and finishing with only eight points in Game 5.

In a closely contested series where he has had to make constant tweaks to try to stop Aldridge, Rockets coach Kevin McHale came up with a winner on Wednesday night in Houston when he had Dwight Howard come immediately to Aldridge as soon as he caught the ball to wrap him up with Omer Asik.

“That was a different change for them, because they normally had not come so quickly,” Aldridge said. “They usually waited until I made a move, but they came quick.

“It was both. It was foul trouble, then I lost my rhythm.”

Blazers coach Terry Stotts said the Blazers will make small adjustments to free up Aldridge, but “won’t try to reinvent the wheel.”

Teammate Wesley Matthews says it doesn’t require anything more than the Blazers taking care of their business in making the transition from defense to offense.

“I think we got a little sloppy and need to tighten things up defensively,” Matthews said. “If we take care of things with our defensive rebounding, not give them so many second chances and then get the ball up the floor and get into our offense faster, we’ll be getting the ball to L.A. before they have a chance to set up.

“It’s not really something that’s home L.A. It’s on all of us. We’re in this together.”

Linsanity lets Rockets keep heads

By Fran Blinebury, NBA.com


VIDEO: Rockets top Blazers in Game 5 to stay alive

HOUSTON – In the end, it looked like every single reason that had pushed team owner Leslie Alexander to search around in the sofa cushions to find the $168 million and change to bring in a couple of big, big stars.

There was Dwight Howard going to work in the low post for nifty little jump hooks, powerful drives to the basket and also gobbling up critical rebounds coming down the stretch.

Here was the laboring James Harden at long last pulling a meaningful 3-point shot from somewhere out of his beard and coaxing it through the net just when the game was hanging in the balance.

At crunch time, for once in this compelling series, the Rockets didn’t get crunched.

But you’re crazy if you think Houston would have lived to play another day without a little ol’ dose of Linsanity.

It’s funny that Game 5 of this most compelling first round series should find Jeremy Lin in the role of fire-starter — and maybe season saver — getting the full-throated appreciation and roar from the Toyota Center crowd.

Before Sam Presti played Santa Claus and dropped Harden right down the Rockets’ chimney and before Howard had that ill-fitting season to live and die in L.A., this was going to be Lin’s team.

Flip the calendar back 21 months to the summer of 2012 and this was going to be his team. His face was ubiquitous on billboards that line the freeways, he could be seen smiling from the sides of buses.

Then Harden and Howard happened. Then Patrick Beverley arrived.

Things change.

They changed again dramatically from Game 4 to Game 5 as well. The last time Lin was seen was Sunday night when he shot just 1-for-6 from the field and made a critical turnover in the final minute of regulation that allowed the Blazers to go on tie and win in OT.

This time, Lin took the baton from Beverley, who has been sick and ailing for several days, and practically turned back the clock to those crazy nights when he became a worldwide phenomenon at Madison Square Garden.

He zigged when the Blazers’ defense zagged. He found the cracks that let him get into the lane and all the way to the basket. He found the openings and the nerve to pull up and stab in long jumpers just when the Rockets seemed ready to topple again.

“He had these two big 3-pointers at the end of possessions as the shot clock was ending,” said Blazers coach Terry Stotts. “Those were big momentum plays for them and they took a little bit out of us.”

Lin finished with 21 points, four assists and two steals in the Rockets’ 108-98 Game 5 victory. But it was a six-minute span late in the third quarter and early in the fourth when Portland cut their lead down to a single point and he was practically a one-man roll of duct tape holding the Rockets together.

There was the unpredictable style, those unorthodox moves that take him from the baseline back out the top of the key in the wink of an eye and that unmatchable, often inexplicable verve that can pick up and arena and put it on his skinny shoulders.

“I felt like I needed to be more of a spark tonight,” Lin said. “I haven’t done a great job of that this series. After the last game, I was really upset and I just believed and focused,” he said.

That changed in Game 5 when the Blazers’ Wes Matthews said that Lin was a deciding factor in the game.

“It seemed like Jeremy Lin hit big shot after big shot,” said Matthews said. “He was attacking the rim, hitting shots. We have to do a better job defensively on him.”

He’s still like summer lightning. You never know where or when he’ll strike and the damage can be significant. But Lin now has to pick his spots and wait his turn in the bigger, grander hierarchy of the Rockets.

“Jeremy has had some very good games for us,” said coach Kevin McHale. We needed him. He had a great stretch there where he was able to break people down. They were trying to pressure him all over and he broke the pressure down and going in the paint and made a couple of floaters.

“When they’re putting that much pressure on us, it really is hard to run an offense. You’ve got to break people down.”

The Rockets will chalk it up as $168 million well-spent with Howard and Harden delivering at the end.

But when the season was hanging in the balance, it was that dash of Linsanity that kept them from losing their heads.


VIDEO: Lin and Parsons discuss Game 5 win

Hakeem to Dwight: It’s mind that matters

By Fran Blinebury, NBA.com


VIDEO: What does it take to come back from a 3-1 deficit?

HOUSTON — It was 20 years ago when I entered a Rockets locker room in Phoenix and got a lesson in mind games.

Hakeem Olajuwon was sitting at a stall in the cramped room for the visiting team, lacing up his sneakers. His Rockets had lost the first two games at home to Charles Barkley and the Suns, then won Game 3 in the desert.

Still the Rockets were the team in the hole just a little more than an hour before tipoff of Game 4 when I mentioned to Olajuwon that the heat and the pressure were again on his team.

He looked up, smiled peacefully and reached out to pull a folding chair up next to his.

“Sit down and let me explain,” Olajuwon said. “The pressure is all on Phoenix. Because they know if we go back home 2-2 they will have wasted having the advantage. The know we will win Game 5 at home. They will have to fight to survive in Game 6 and then they will not have a chance in Game 7 in Houston. That is why they will feel the pressure. They know they must win tonight.”

The Suns didn’t. The Rockets won in seven and the legend of Clutch City was born.

Fast forward to 1995. This time Barkley and the Suns built a 3-1 lead on the Rockets. This time Barkley and the Suns had home-court advantage.

This time I was sure I had Olajuwon backed into the corner when I approached him again about an hour before Game 5. Now the situation was reversed and the Rockets were the ones on the ropes. He saw me coming.

“Where’s your chair?” he asked with that impish grin.

I sat down and he was immediately off making twists and turns of logic and faith and resolute determination.

“Phoenix must win tonight,” he said. “If they don’t end the series, they know we will go back to Houston and win Game 6. Then we come back here and the pressure to win Game 7 will be so great. They will be tight. They will be tense. They will be afraid to fail and that often leads to failure.”

Which it did. And the Rockets went on to win their second consecutive NBA championship.

Mind games.

That’s where the Rockets are today, trailing the Trail Blazers 3-1 with their toes and their season dangling over the edge.

That’s where Olajuwon comes back in. The Hall of Famer didn’t just work with Dwight Howard on his post moves at practice Tuesday. He worked on his head.

“It is deceiving if you look at the situation as 3-1,” Olajuwon said. “I told Dwight, I told all of them, that the situation is just one game and then everything changes around.”

Three of the first four games have gone to overtime, every Blazers win by five points or less.

Let Kevin McHale and his coaching staff worry about the X’s and O’s, the juggling of the playing rotation, the tweaks to the lineup, how to corral LaMarcus Aldridge. The greatest player in franchise history says all the Rockets have to do is have the right attitude.

“This is the Rockets’ chance not just to win a game, but to dominate, to take control of every play, every possession at both ends of the court and take over the series,” Olajuwon said. “If you think about it, this should be the most free, the most easy game the Rockets have played in the playoffs. Play that way and everything changes.”

That’s how the great ones from Bill Russell to Larry Bird to Magic Johnson to Michael Jordan to Hakeem always climbed the ladder. They played to thrive, not just survive. They never felt their backs were against the wall, because they simply refused to acknowledge the very existence of the wall. The problem is never theirs, but one that belongs to the other guy.

“Portland is feeling good about themselves right now,” Olajuwon said. “They have won three times and they have a chance to close it all out in Game 5. But they better, because if you think about it, this next game is their best chance. If they lose this game, if you punish them, dominate them, you plant that doubt.”

Those Rockets of 1994 and 1995 were a veteran bunch. From Hakeem to Otis Thorpe to Vernon Maxwell to Clyde Drexler to Kenny Smith to Mario Elie, they had been around more than a few basketball blocks. By the second time around, even the youngest bricks in their wall — Robert Horry and Sam Cassell — had lived through the crucible of the first experience.

These Rockets, as far as playoff pedigrees, mostly couldn’t be more wet behind the ears if you tossed them into the ocean.

“That’s why I told Dwight that it’s up to him to set the pace,” Olajuwon said. “He and James Harden are the veterans. But he is the center. He is the one the game goes around, on offense and on defense. Set the pace. Come out strong.

“I am excited about what I see from Dwight since the beginning of the season. I watch and I see many of the things that we’ve worked on coming out in his game. I see moves. I see a jumper that could be a bigger weapon in the future. I see aggressiveness in him that is becoming more consistent.”

What he wants to see, what he needs to see now, is a team leader that doesn’t recognize the current predicament as anything but an opportunity.

Two decades later, a seat in another folding chair and another lesson, for me and for Howard.

“Like I told him,” said Olajuwon, “3-1 is just going out and having fun.”

Mind games.

Blazers, Stotts plan to stick to Hack-a-Howard strategy

By Fran Blinebury, NBA.com


VIDEO: Dwight Howard talks after the Rockets’ practice on Monday

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.


VIDEO: Shaquille O’Neal and the Inside the NBA guys discuss the ‘Hack-a-Howard’ strategy