Orlando, Fla. Dwight Howard routinely backs his man down with ease, creating his own space in the paint. Then after one dribble, maybe two, and he turns to dunk — he gets walloped.
The ploy is becoming a staple in Orlando games with opponents sending the Magic big man to the free-throw line every time he’s around the rim.
Even Indiana coach Jim O’Brien said before Monday night’s loss to the Magic the best way to frustrate Howard was to foul him hard. O’Brien used the tactic perhaps more than anyone this season, and it nearly worked.
“I think the thing that if I was Dwight Howard would tend to frustrate me is, I think, sometimes defenses are allowed to get away with murder from the standpoint of how they foul him,” O’Brien said before the game. “That can be very, very frustrating. So it’s not giving him deep catches, fouling him and pray to the heavens that he’s not making foul shots that night.”
The hard hits on Howard haven’t sat well with the Magic.
Coach Stan Van Gundy has maintained that officials are quicker to blow the whistle — or call a flagrant foul — if perimeter players such as Los Angeles’ Kobe Bryant and Cleveland’s LeBron James are hit hard.
His argument may have finally resonated.
The league said Tuesday it rescinded a technical foul on Howard and assessed a flagrant foul on Indiana’s Troy Murphy after the two got tangled up in Orlando’s win Monday night. Murphy had fouled Howard hard around the neck and shoulders to prevent the 6-foot-11, 275-pound center from throwing down another monstrous slam.
“We didn’t feel like we won anything because we’re not at battle with” the league, Van Gundy said. “But it’s a good acknowledgment that those things have to be flagrant fouls.”
Magic general manager Otis Smith had asked the league to review the play and monitor hard hits on Howard. But Smith said the easiest solution is in Howard’s hands.
“The only way for it to stop is a two-prong approach,” Smith said. “One, he has to make his free throws. And the second part is, he has to make more free throws.”
That hasn’t been easy.
Howard is still among the worst free-throw shooters in the league at 58 percent this season, slightly down from his 59 percent career average. But that statistic may be misleading in Howard’s case.
Even after the Pacers put him on the line 22 times Monday night — he made just 13 free throws — Howard still finished with 21 points and 23 rebounds.
Howard doesn’t believe the league hitting Murphy with a flagrant foul will change anything.
“It’s not going to happen,” he said. “They’re going to continue to hit me, I just have to not get frustrated and continue to play.”
And consistently make free throws.
Hack-A-Howard worked for the Phoenix Suns, but he made the Los Angeles Clippers pay.
Phoenix literally held Howard to one field-goal attempt in a win over the Magic last week. Instead of letting Howard score inside, the Suns made him shoot 17 free throws — he made only eight.
The Clippers tried the tactic, too, a few days earlier. It didn’t work, Howard hit 11 of 15 from the line.
“That’s one of the ways to try and stop Dwight — foul him,” Magic backup center Marcin Gortat said. “Maybe the only way.”
One of the biggest challenges Howard faces is not losing his cool.
He swung his hand out to create separation after Murphy fouled him Monday night, a move that easily could have landed and perhaps drawn a fine or suspension. And it wouldn’t be the first time.
Howard was suspended last year for Game 6 in the opening round against Philadelphia for elbowing Samuel Dalembert in the previous game. The Magic were able to eliminate the 76ers without Howard.
The league fined Howard in early November for comments critical of officials on his blog. Since then, Van Gundy said Howard is not complaining as much about fouls, and that’s helping him stay focused.