The Hack-a-Howard Era has begun.
If necessary, it will continue in OKC.
The Lakers are coming to town for a prime-time showdown on Friday night. Even though they are playing like the Zombie Lakers — a game under .500 and a dreadful 2-5 on the road — the Thunder will need every advantage to beat a team that will surely be gunning for it.
Hack-a-Howard is a plus for the Thunder.
Three teams in the past week have intentionally sent the Laker big man and woeful free-throw shooter Dwight Howard to the charity stripe late in games. Two of those teams won because of it.
“We've done it in the past,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said of intentionally fouling an awful foul shooter. “It's not something that we will think about much going into it. But ... if the game dictates that, we will consider it.”
As well they should.
It could win the game.
Tuesday night, Houston became the second team in as many games to use Hack-a-Howard successfully. Orlando did it a few nights early in a resounding 10-point victory, so when Houston found itself clawing back from a 17-point deficit, it decided to give it a try.
Howard, who is shooting only 46.9 percent from the line this season, made just 5 of 10 free-throws in the final eight minutes of the game, which might not seem so bad.
Except that the Lakers lost by two.
Granted, Los Angeles gave up 34 points to Houston in the fourth quarter, so Howard's misses can't be blamed entirely. And yet the Lakers' offense got knocked completely off kilter during his repeated marches to the free-throw line. By the time he made three in a row and the Rockets stopped intentionally grabbing and bumping him, the damage had already been done.
“It doesn't just impact the player,” Brooks said. “It impacts the entire team.”
A man who wrote his doctoral dissertation on free-throw shooting couldn't agree more.
Jim Poteet used to be the basketball coach and athletic director at Southern Nazarene, but he is better known as one of the world's foremost experts on free-throw shooting. He not only studied it but also won more than 300 medals in it.
“What Dwight does at the free-throw line affects the rest of his teammates,” Poteet said. “They're saying, ‘Oh, no, we're down to crunch time, and they're gonna foul him and put him at the line.'”
And from what Poteet has seen of Howard, the outcome is likely to be a disaster.
“If you watch poor free-throw shooters like Shaq was or Howard is, there's no rhyme or reason to how they're going to shoot the ball,” Poteet said. “You take somebody like Kevin Durant who's a great free-throw shooter. If you watch him, he's going to do things the same every single time.”
That gets at the heart of his dissertation — the paradox of free throws. What makes them looks so easy is what makes them so hard.
Players must focus, Poteet says, on the process and not the outcome.
“The real key is coming up with a fundamental way of approaching free-throw shooting,” he said.
Then, dribble, set, shoot, repeat.
“I don't think those guys have ever done that.”
Then again, maybe Howard and Co. aren't motivated to find a free-throw fix. It's never kept Superman from being an All-Star or getting a rich contract.
(But Dwight, in the event you wanted to do something about your free-throw shooting, Coach Poteet lives in Bethany, which is only about 15 minutes from the hotel where you're staying in downtown Oklahoma City.)
Free-throw woes might not hurt Howard in his next contract negotiations, but it could hurt the Lakers on Friday night.
Even though Howard went 17 for 20 from the line in OKC a couple seasons ago — “He always seems to make his free throws when we play him,” Durant said — the Thunder shouldn't hesitate to grab him and foul him and send him to the line.
“It's all within the rules,” Brooks said.
At this point, it's way more than legal.
It's solid strategy.
Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at (405) 475-4125. Like her at facebook.com/JenniCarlsonOK, follow her at twitter.com/jennicarlson_ok or view her personality page at newsok.com/jennicarlson.