The Los Angeles Lakers have had problems closing out their opponents of late, to say the least.
Since the start of December, they've blown close games in the fourth quarter at home against the San Antonio Spurs and the Indiana Pacers and given away big leads late against inferior teams (e.g., the Orlando Magic and the Houston Rockets).
It's a strange development for such a veteran team to lose its composure down the stretch so frequently. But as troubling as the trend has been thus far, it's not without its solutions.
There's the not-so-small issue of Dwight Howard's free-throw shooting. The Magic and the Rockets both engineered stunning fourth-quarter runs by liberally employing the much-maligned Hack-a-Dwight tactic to perfection. Lakers head coach Mike D'Antoni stubbornly left Dwight in the game on each occasion and watched in horror, disgust as the big fella missed nine of his 16 attempts after being wrapped up.
Perhaps it's a mechanical issue. Howard's big hands and wayward elbows have never made shooting free throws anything less than an adventure—he's a 58.4 percent foul-shooter for his career, including a personal nadir of 46.9 percent in 2012-13.
Perhaps it's all in his head. When discussing Dwight's poor percentages from the stripe, the Lakers regularly refer to the work he's put in with assistant coach Chuck Person, and how he's converting at an 80-percent clip in practice with his tweaked form. Even so, Howard's hit just 42.5 percent of his free throws in the fourth quarter thus far.
Or, perhaps Dwight's just not a fan of in-game hugs.
Whatever the case may be, the Lakers would do well to minimize Howard's exposure to the Hack-a-Dwight during the game's most sensitive moments. His parades to the stripe cost the Lakers points and tend to disrupt their rhythm on both ends of the floor.
Unfortunately, it's difficult to pull off with Pau Gasol sidelined by knee tendinitis. Few coaches would be willing to trust Jordan Hill with such important minutes, especially D'Antoni, who's shown an aversion to the dreadlocked big man in both New York and L.A.
Once Pau returns, though, he'd seem a natural fit to hold down the fort in the middle late in close games. Gasol typically converts his free throws at a mid-70s rate, making him an unlikely target for hacking.
Having one versatile big like Pau on the floor would also open up space in which L.A.'s offense (read: Kobe Bryant) could operate more efficiently and effectively, especially with a shooter like Antawn Jamison filling in at power forward. According to NBA.com's stats tool, the Lakers are 17.6 points per 100 possessions better than the opposition when Gasol and Jamison share the floor.
The Howard-Jamison pairing, on the other hand, sports a net rating of just 2.9 points and allows 5.9 more points per 100 possessions than does the Gasol-Jamison duo.
The move would be a boon for Gasol, as well. He's a center by trade and has struggled (for the most part) in his minutes as a perimeter-oriented power forward. Leaving Gasol alone in the middle more would give him a greater opportunity to ply his trade and regain his waning confidence, particularly in big moments.
This doesn't necessarily mean the Lakers should automatically banish Dwight to the bench whenever the game is on the line. Not all opponents will feel the need to hack, at least not immediately.
Nor is it exactly in L.A.'s best interest on both ends of the floor to put Howard on the pine in such situations. As troubling as the specter of Hack-a-Dwight may be, simply taking him out of the game puts the Lakers at a disadvantage defensively.
Often lost amid the Hack-a-Dwight chatter are the 74 combined fourth-quarter points L.A. surrendered against Orlando and Houston. That includes 35 points surrendered over the final 6:47 to the Magic and 28 during the last 7:33 to the Rockets.
Removing Howard from the equation might not be such a good idea all of the time, then. He's L.A.'s best rebounder and the anchor of the team's defense. Without him, opposing guards are practically free to waltz to the rim after angling past slower Laker defenders on the perimeter.
That being said, Jordan Hill is a capable defender, if not necessarily an intimidating one, and he certainly has the energy to crash the boards, if D'Antoni ever lets him out of the doghouse consistently. He also knows how to hit a free throw from time to time.
And, as mentioned earlier, the Hack-a-Dwight also disrupts whatever flow the Lakers might otherwise have going for them on the defensive end. If guys know they're not going to get to play offensively, they're liable to lose focus and intensity defensively.
It might also behoove Mike D to do a better job of managing his other players' minutes through the first three quarters. He can hardly expect elder statesmen like Kobe, Metta World Peace and (eventually) Steve Nash to stick to their assignments when their old legs have already been run ragged.
As if they could consistently shut down young guns on the perimeter even with the benefit of rest.
However you slice it, D'Antoni has a delicate job on his hands. His task is to weigh L.A.'s fourth-quarter defensive woes against Howard's vulnerability at the free-throw line.
In any case, Howard or no Howard, D'Antoni had better start experimenting with possible fixes sooner rather than later.
Because title contenders take care of business in crunch time—which, among other reasons, leaves the Lakers on the outside looking in until Mike D finds a workable resolution.