HOUSTON — Evidently, it is also safe now to spit into the wind and pull the mask off the old Lone Ranger. Because everybody, it seems, is tugging on Superman’s cape these days.
Dwight Howard couldn’t be more exposed if he were a magazine centerfold wearing nothing but a staple. At least in Playboy, they usually let you lay down on a soft bearskin rug.
Howard shot just 8-for-16 on free throws and it was actually his best night from the foul line in a week and a half.
Every time the Lakers center stands unguarded 15 feet from the basket, it is becoming less a surprising adventure than a sitcom rerun: The Big Clang Theory.
The Rockets were only the latest to intentionally foul Howard and send him to the line. The strategy — Bite-a-Dwight, if you will — continues to take a shark-sized chunk from the aura of the big man that the Lakers are falling all over themselves for the chance to pay $100 million to and give away the keys to the franchise.
The fact that the strategy worked — and gave the crowd at the Toyota Center great amusement — covered up a bigger batch of sins. The Lakers can’t take care of the ball, committing 19 turnovers, can’t keep opponents off the offensive glass and can’t defend consistently when the game is on the line.
Yes, the Rockets sent Howard to the line five different times in a 69-second span of the fourth quarter. Yes, he connected only five times on his 10 throws. But during that stretch Houston outscored the Lakers by just 7-5.
It was everything else the Rockets did in the fourth quarter — getting James Harden into the paint to draw fouls, getting easy dump-off passes to Greg Smith, getting open shots on the wing for Toney Douglas -- that made the difference.
Just as occurred on at home on Sunday night against Orlando, Howard’s ineptitude from the foul line was the lightning rod while everyone else in the lineup let the house burn down.
Now the talk shows and the Twitterverse will be teeming with the suggestions for coach Mike D’Antoni to chain Howard to the bench in the fourth quarter of close games.
“People have no clue what they’re talking about if they think I’ll take Dwight out in the fourth quarter,” D’Antoni said. “It’s pretty simple: You don’t do that to a guy. He made his foul shots and that’s not the reason that we lost that game. He has to work through this. You just don’t take out a franchise player and do something like that to him.”
Certainly not if you don’t want to risk turning a mental block into a full blown psychosis. If Howard is going to be the anchor to the Lakers in the post-Kobe Bryant future, then he can hardly be hidden away at crunch time like Grandma’s porcelain figurines every time the kiddies come to visit.
“That’s just a strategy that teams are employing and we have to figure out the best strategy to defend it,” Bryant said. “We’ve talked about it a little bit. He just has to keep working at it all the time and keep practicing and doing it over and over until he turns it into a strength.”
The more critical problem is the Lakers’ lack of discipline and defense when games get late. This was a game in which the Lakers once led by 17 and were still up by 13 early in the fourth quarter.
On a night when Harden was a myopic 3-for-19, Chandler Parsons 5-for-16 and Jeremy Lin 2-for-8, the Rockets kept working and grinding and did all of the little things to inch their way back and give themselves a chance. It was the kind of play that the Lakers seem to think is beneath them.
With Steve Nash still out with a fractured leg and Pau Gasol now going to the sidelines to rest his ailing knees, excuses are all around for the Lakers, if they want to use them.
So, too, is the easy scapegoat, Howard, hammering more metal than a blacksmith, at the line. But it is not Howard committing the defensive breakdowns. He’s stepping up to cut off a penetrator and nobody is rotating behind him. Howard is not the one leaving the likes of Douglas and Carlos Delfino wide open on the outside because the proper switches weren’t made.
“He’s not the reason that our defense breaks down,” D’Antoni said. “He’s not the reason that stuff happens.”
But as long as Superman keeps standing exposed at the foul line, the real problems stay hidden.