Howard minus magic touch

Free throw misses costly in Game 4

Magic center Dwight Howard had no trouble dunking Thursday, but free throws were a different story. Magic center Dwight Howard had no trouble dunking Thursday, but free throws were a different story. (John Bazemore/Associated Press)
By Antonio Gonzalez
Associated Press / June 13, 2009
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ORLANDO, Fla. - Dwight Howard has gone to great lengths trying to solve his free throw woes.

Howard spends nights at the Orlando Magic's practice facility, inviting friends to blast music and distract him during shots. He takes about 300 free throws a day, often not stopping until he makes 20 in a row, and he's usually the last player to leave.

Practice doesn't seem to be the problem. It's the games that hurt.

After missing eight free throws in the Magic's 99-91 overtime loss Thursday to Los Angeles - including a pair that could have sealed a win in regulation - Howard's struggles at the line seem to be following the trend of some great centers before him.

Overcoming such a traumatic moment could prove even more difficult.

"I know he feels badly about missing them, but you know what? Players even more so than coaches, they've got to have themselves in a position where they clear their head and are ready to bounce back and play a game," Magic coach Stan Van Gundy said yesterday.

Howard isn't the first All-Star center to struggle at the line.

Shaquille O'Neal and Wilt Chamberlain stand out the most, dominant big men who have six NBA titles between them, but never could solve their free throw stroke. O'Neal (52 percent) and Chamberlain (51 percent) rank as some of the worst free throw shooters in league history.

Howard had been shooting 65 percent from the line in the playoffs - up from the 59 percent in the regular season - but finished 6 for 14 in Game 4, washing away a Finals-record nine blocked shots, and 16 points and 21 rebounds. Now the Magic trail the Lakers, 3-1, and have to win three straight, starting with Game 5 here tomorrow night.

"Nobody is hurting more about what happened [Thursday] night than me, but I'm not hanging my head," Howard posted on his blog yesterday, a day off for players. "I wish I had those free throws back, but I can't shoot them again. All I can do now is move on and try to do better next time."

Orlando was ahead, 87-84, with 11.1 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter when Howard missed two free throws. Van Gundy chose not to intentionally foul the Lakers because that would have forced the Magic to make free throws in return, and Derek Fisher hit a 3-pointer to send the game into overtime.

"That's not something that I get upset about," Van Gundy said about Howard's misses. "I mean, there's nobody up there trying to miss a free throw in that situation. But you might get frustrated by it and so do the players."

Howard's clanks brought back memories of the Magic's only other Finals appearance, when Nick Anderson missed four consecutive free throws at the end of Game 1 of the 1995 Finals. Orlando was swept by Houston.

Anderson has said he was consumed by those misses and it showed in the years that followed.

Howard hates the comparisons to poor free throw shooters, and he took his latest struggles personally.

His usually playful demeanor, even after losses, was absent after Game 4. He sat alone at his locker for about 30 minutes, only muttering a few words to teammates.

As he dressed, someone asked if he would be able to recover from such a tough loss. Howard looked up and defiantly said: "So what? Life is tough."

So, too, could be life at the free throw line.

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