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Hack-a-Dwight? Better Think Twice

HOUSTON, TX - NOVEMBER 16:  Dwight Howard #12 of the Houston Rockets shoots a free throw against the Denver Nuggets on November 16, 2013 at the Toyota Center in Houston, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2013 NBAE (Photo by Bill Baptist/NBAE via Getty Images)
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David MurphyFeatured ColumnistNovember 17, 2013

Like a certain other legendary big man, a major weakness in Dwight Howard’s game has always been his abysmal free-throw attempts. On Saturday night, the Denver Nuggets went to the Hack-a-Shaq against Howard. The plot went horribly awry.

The setting was Houston. The Nuggets rolled into town on the heels of a three-game win streak. They may also have been a bit weary—it was the second night of a back-to-back. Down 90-75 going into the fourth quarter, they tried a different tact. Howard was repeatedly hacked and answered definitively—18 of his 25 points came in the final frame, including 13 of 19 free throws within a paltry two-and-a-half-minute stretch.

By now, it’s no longer called the Hack-a-Shaq. Howard has been absorbing enough of the punishment in recent years that he can safely affix his own name to it. It’s worth noting, however, that the strategy is not without its merits. There’s a reason for its being—it often works.

Gregg Popovich famously used the technique against Shaquille O’Neal during the great Spurs-Lakers rivalry of the early 2000s. It wasn’t simply the idea that O’Neal couldn’t make his free throws—although that certainly helped. The larger point was using the tactic to gain extra possessions at the end of quarters.

Brian Shaw is the new head coach for the Nuggets this season, and he had plenty of opportunity to see the gambit in play during his years with the Lakers—both as a player and an assistant coach. Howard was looking at the wrong end of a 49 percent free-throw average going into Saturday’s game. Had that held up, it would have been a career low.

Down by a lot, Shaw went for the gamble. He began sending guys for the intentional fouls. Per Christopher Dempsey at The Denver PostShaw lamented his choice later: 

That goes against everything I'm about. I don't believe in that and I don't think it's in the spirit of the game. So that is exactly what I get for doing that. I'm glad he made his free throws and it shows me to just be true to who you are.

Maybe all those years alongside O’Neal showed Shaw that you can live by the hack and die by it too. After all, the Lakers wound up with the hardware during those halcyon days.

Of course, that was then and this is now. Howard made his own decision about legacies this summer when he elected to leave Los Angeles for a shot at a ring in Houston.

Howard is scoring 17.1 points per game and averaging 14.9 boards. It’s the same scoring average as last season with a bit of an uptick in rebounds. With this win, the Rockets go to 7-4 on their young season. It’s not great, but it’s better than the Lakers. It’s also better than Denver.

Houston’s new star acquisition can add considerably to his arsenal with a consistent free-throw stroke. It’s far too early to say he's crossed the threshold, but with Saturday night’s win, Howard serves notice on opponents—better think twice about the Hack-a-Dwight.

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