There’s something running amok in Lakertown and it’s not just the free throws.
Dwight Howard, who we were all ecstatic about a couple weeks ago, is now clad in purple and gold, and L.A.’s record is: 8-10. How? A lot of people are pointing the finger at Dwight, who is very quickly starting to resemble a championship era Shaquille O’Neal, one that couldn’t sink free throws to save his life. The recent trend is the opposing team sending Howard to the line, especially when it gets down to the wire. Last night, for example, Lakers fans saw the Houston Rockets come back from what felt like a surefire win. At one point the Lakers led by as many as 17 points, and going into the fourth quarter, L.A. was sitting on the better end of a 13-point deficit. If you saw the game, you know how it turned out. Howard was 8-for-16 from the line—and that’s good for him. He’s a less-than-50-percent free-throw shooter, and last night, he went 50 percent. Personally, I don’t think Howard’s free throws are the problem. I think it’s the defense, among other things.
The Lakers feel light years behind the Oklahoma City Thunder, who today sit atop the Western Conference with a 15-4 record. Yes, I’m jumping the gun. The season is still young; there’s a lot of ball left to play. But I can’t help but think we look like the Celtics of the West Coast (except even they’re doing better than us). We have a team with a grip of talent that seems to be fading: Howard is far from 100 percent; Kobe has been playing his killer, clutch game for the most part but even the Black Mamba seems a little dusty; the Steves have been on the bench for most of the season with injuries; Pau has become the league’s biggest softy—and he’s now dealing with knee problems; and Metta World Peace has gone from draining 3-pointers to missing wide open bank shots from the block.
So enough of the blame game; it’s clearly not just the free throws. In the match against the Indiana Pacers almost a week ago, the entire Lakers team practically let guard George Hill waltz into the key and loft a gimme layup for the win. (Of course, that’s a little dramatic. What really happened is Pau bit on a fake pick ‘n’ roll and Dwight rotated a fraction of a second too late.) There have been other fourth-quarter collapses, as well, including but not limited to our beloved Kloser taking horrendous go-ahead looks (last night), pathetic breakdowns in the post (which usually lead to a benched Pau), and astronomic amounts of turnovers.
It’s hard not to feel for Mike Brown, who, honestly, wasn’t really given a chance considering what he was working with. Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni now has to fix a laundry list of flaws, but with regard to free-throw woes, he’s been fairly defensive: “It’s pretty simple: You don’t do that to a guy,” D’Antoni told reporters when asked why he hasn’t taken Howard out during the fourth quarter. “He made his foul shots and he’s not the reason that our defense breaks down. He’s not the reason that stuff happens.” D’Antoni is faced with the daunting task of rallying a very confused-looking Lakers team. It feels like one of those perverse scenarios where you’ve got the pieces, but no idea how to make them fit.
I’m not saying making your free throws isn’t important—after all, they’re called free for a reason. But that’s not D’Antoni’s biggest problem right now. It’s just the most visible one.