With 1:36 to play, and the Rockets leading 104-102, Carmelo Anthony fouled Howard away from the ball, continuing the Knicks’ fourth-quarter hack-a-Dwight strategy. One hitch: Fouling intentionally in the final 2 minutes of the game gives the opponent one free throw – by their player of choice -- plus possession.
“A boneheaded play on my behalf,” Anthony said later.
Harden hit the free throw, Howard later hit two of his own and the Rockets departed Madison Square Garden with a 109-106 win despite Anthony's 45 points.
It was a devastating defeat for the Knicks, who fell to 3-5 on the season and 1-4 at home. It was a cleansing victory for the Rockets, who shook off a tough overtime loss in Philadelphia a night earlier.
The Rockets are 6-4 after 10 games of the still-nascent Harden-Howard era, which seems encouraging enough. The Miami Heat needed a month of games in 2010 to get LeBron James and Dwyane Wade in synch. The newly revamped, star-studded Brooklyn Nets are stumbling over each other, sputtering to a 2-5 start.
So while the Rockets might not be dominating yet, they are satisfied with the early results.
“We didn’t expect to all get together and then all of a sudden – bam -- we’re an amazing team,” Howard said. “It takes time. And it’s not going to be easy.”
It has not been, and it might not be for some time.
Howard has yet to find any offensive rhythm and is averaging just 17.1 points per game – identical to his average in Los Angeles last season, when he was hampered by back and shoulder injuries, playing in an offense he detested, alongside a ball-dominating superstar (Kobe Bryant).
Howard is healthy and spry now, but he has yet to reclaim the dominant stature – at either end of the court -- that made him a feared player during his Orlando years.
On Thursday, Howard could not even dominate Andrea Bargnani, the Knicks’ oft-mocked, notoriously soft 7-footer.
Bargnani won the head-to-head battle, outscoring Howard 24-7 – a box score that should make Howard shudder.
Howard attempted only 5 field goals, converted just one and finished with his lowest point total as a Rocket.
The Knicks used frequent double teams to force the ball out of Howard’s hands in the first half. But in the second half, it was mostly Bargnani, standing up to Howard on one one in the post, denying him any space or any easy shots. Howard went 0 for 4 in the second half.
Bargnani, meanwhile, roamed free on offense, daring Howard to meet him on the perimeter. He finished 9 for 12 from the field, 3 for 3 from the arc.
“Bargnani did an excellent job of staying spread on the floor, which is very tough for me,” Howard said. “I’m a conventional center. He’s a guy that likes to stay on the perimeter. So it was very tough for me to want to get to the paint, protect the basket and then try to get out and close on him. He did a good job tonight.”
The Rockets are still trying to find the right offensive balance with Harden, Howard and Jeremy Lin. So far, the guards are dominating the ball and the scoring load, which to Howard must feel like a bad flashback to last season.
In theory, Howard should be thriving in an offense run by Harden and Lin, who are among the top pick-and-roll guards in the league. Howard is regarded as the top pick-and-roll finisher in the league. It should be a perfect match.
But Howard complained bitterly about Coach Mike D’Antoni’s pick-and-roll heavy offense in L.A. , saying he preferred to be used more in the post. The Rockets seem determined to grant that wish. Howard was rarely involved in pick-and-roll plays Thursday.
Asked the best way to use Howard, Coach Kevin McHale said coyly, “We drop him the ball and it’s up to him. Get him the ball in the post and then just let him go.”
Howard is also battling his own demons, specifically his career-long struggle to make free throws. Several teams – most notably the Knicks -- have applied the hack-a-Shaq approach, daring Howard to beat them at the line.
The Lakers humiliated Howard with intentional fouls last week. On Thursday, the Knicks nearly did the same as they chipped away at a 7-point deficit in the final minutes. After Howard missed two free throws with 3:24 left, McHale decided to pull him, rather than risk further embarrassment and a loss.
“We just thought it was a minute or so and we’d get him out for a little bit and get him back in,” McHale said.
Howard did not return until the 1:39 mark, with the lead down to 104-102. The Knicks failed to capitalize much on his absence, but a better team might.
“There’s no reason to get mad,” Howard said of the strategic benching. “We still won the game. That’s the only thing that matters.”
To his credit, Howard made two free throws with 1:15 left, helping the Rockets put the game away.
Other factors have been out of Howard’s control, such as McHale’s curious decision to pair Howard with Omer Asik, an offensively challenged 7-footer, in a twin towers frontcourt. The experiment was a predictable failure, clogging up the offense and leaving Howard no room to operate. But it took eight games before McHale pulled the plug and inserted Terrence Jones at power forward.
Asik reacted by demanding a trade, throwing another small hitch in the Rockets’ chemistry-building efforts.
Along the way, McHale also switched starting point guards, opting for the defensive-minded Patrick Beverley over the scoring-minded Lin, who is now thriving in the sixth man role.
“We have a long way to go,” Harden said of integrating Howard. “We’ll find a rhythm to where we know where he’s going to be successful at, where we can find our spots to score as guards. It’s not going to (happen) overnight.”