There were many interesting stories leading up to tonight's game between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Houston Rockets. Dwight Howard was facing his old team—the team he rejected in the offseason—for the first time. Kobe Bryant spoke to the media before the game of his long-awaited return from injury.
That was before the game, though. By the time the final buzzer had sounded, the story of the game was the clutch shooting of the Lakers, particularly Steve Blake. With mere seconds left on the clock and the favored Rockets nursing a two-point lead, Blake sunk a dagger three from the corner, propelling the Lakers to an improbable 99-98 victory over Howard and the Rockets.
Lakers Live By the Three, Win By the Three
If somebody told you an NBA team won a game despite a 52-15 free-throw deficit, would you believe it? Well that was exactly what happened tonight.
How rare is it for a team to give up more than 50 free-throw attempts, while attempting 15 or fewer, and still win? According to Basketball Reference, it has happened only once before in NBA history—by the Lakers, coincidentally enough—in a 1994 win over the New Jersey Nets.
As one might expect, the Lakers were only able to make up that free-throw deficit with a prolific performance behind the arc.
Lakers shot chart:
Rockets shot chart:
Hack-A-Dwight Pays Off
If you're going to foul an opponent 52 times, it helps if that opponent employs Dwight Howard. The Lakers sent both Howard and James Harden to the foul line 16 times apiece. In Harden's case, the move didn't pay off: He sunk 14 of 16 free throws and finished with 35 points. But when it came time to foul Howard, the move played out perfectly. Howard sank only five of his 16 free throws, and he missed five of his last six down the stretch.
Pau Gasol was particularly blatant in his Dwight-hacking, fouling Howard immediately off the inbound pass with 0:53 remaining in the fourth. Howard missed both free throws.
If Howard was looking to show the Lakers what they were missing, he failed miserably on this night. Not only did his missed free throws cost Houston the win, but he provided LA fans with this glorious video of him running from Laker defenders looking to foul him without the ball.
A Mike D'Antoni-Style Upset
All those threes were the hallmark of a true Mike D'Antoni victory. D'Antoni's career has lost a bit of luster—he crashed out of New York and he helmed an underachieving Laker team last year—but he has worked wonders with this year's team.
D'Antoni never figured out how to win with a traditional roster, but give him a group of shooters and let him spread the floor and he can spring an upset with the best of them. His Lakers shocked the Clippers on opening night with the same three-heavy spread attack that was used on the Rockets tonight.
In a way, tonight's game was less of a typical NBA clash and more of an NCAA tournament-style upset. The favored Rockets had the depth and front line of a major college power, and they overwhelmed the Laker bigs—Pau Gasol was particularly ineffective, shooting just 1-for-10. But the Lakers built a first-half lead with unconscious three-point shooting, weathered a run by the favored opponent, and sunk that last, cold-blooded dagger three to spring the upset.
The Lakers are still missing their best player in Kobe Bryant, but they are holding their own at 3-3. What's more, this team has achieved something unique in the history of the Los Angeles Lakers franchise: They've become a plucky overachiever the rest of the basketball world can embrace.