LOS ANGELES--Dwight Howard's presence late in games for the Los Angeles Lakers could be seen as a liability because of his free-throw shooting. Howard's 48.3 percent average from the line tempts opposing coaches to employ the Hack-A-Dwight tactic.
Missed free throws and free points aren't enough of a reason for Coach Mike D'Antoni to pull his center off the floor down the stretch. Especially now when Howard has proven his worth in setting screens for Kobe Bryant's recent late-game heroics. Howard has been effective lately in the Lakers' pick-and-roll, which has helped them move into a tie for the last playoff spot.
"I have guys I trust to be in at the end of the game and he's one of them," D'Antoni said after Saturday's practice. "And that's how we are going to go."
D'Antoni said Howard is too valuable to be on the bench when the game is on the line, even when Howard is standing at the free-throw line. That might be because D'Antoni regularly glances at the white board that hangs on the wall of the Lakers' practice gym showing everyone free-throw percentage in practice and in games. Howard shot 82 percent in practice through the All-Star break.
"When they are doing Hack-A-Shaq at the end, you can't take him out because then defensively we can't stop anybody," D'Antoni said. "He'll make his foul shots. I have faith in him, and we'll go with him. Everyone plays hard and if that's how we go down, then that's the way we will go down."
Howard's confidence in late-game situations was buoyed by a chat he had with Bryant. The center said he told the Lakers star he was "afraid to miss" shots. Bryant told him to forget about the misses and keep shooting.
"He was like: 'You know what? Shoot 1,000 jump shots a day. You're going to miss a lot of those shots. But that's OK. Because you're teaching yourself it's OK to miss.' Now I see it," Howard said. "He gets out there and he might miss a couple 3s, but then he'll make nine in a row. You see that and it just kind of gives you more inspiration."
Howard and Bryant have combined to post their best games so far this season, maybe careers. With his 40 points and 10 assist games against New Orleans and Toronto, Bryant became the first Lakers player since Jerry West in 1970 to achieve those numbers. Howard has dominated defensively while averaging 22 points, 14 rebounds and 4.5 blocks in the two victories.
Few would ever expect Metta World Peace to step up and lead. Yet, the oft-times beleaguered Lakers forward is sharing the leadership skills he learned from a former Laker with Howard.
"He's not yet a vocal leader because he hasn't been in that situation enough to lead by example, so I have to really step up and lead more vocally and by example and I try to teach Dwight a little bit about what it takes to lead," World Peace said in an interview Thursday on ESPN/710.
"Some guys look at my stats and they don't see extra defensive player of the years and extra All-Stars because I've been in trouble my whole career. So sometimes I lead by example and make big shots and gain these guys' respect. Everybody leads in different ways. We have a lot of different leaders."
World Peace said Derek Fisher taught him about being a leader.
"I didn't know Metta (before I got here)," Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni said. "But just watching him and appreciating the things he does, I've found out he's a great teammate, and good to have on the team."
Earl Clark, the player D'Antoni once called the "brightest spot" on the team, has dimmed in recent weeks, failing to post double digits in scoring in six of the Lakers' past seven games. D'Antoni said Clark looks tired.
"I don't know if he's beat up or what," D'Antoni said.
Clark is in the dark about what has drained his energy level. He said perhaps it is the heavy minutes he is logging for the first time in his career or too much work. He started his 23rd consecutive game Friday in the Lakers' victory against Toronto, but finished with just two points and two rebounds.
He had averaged 10.3 points and 8.4 rebounds in January and 10.9 points and 7.8 rebounds in February.
"They (coaches) said to slow down, not work so hard and get more rest, but it's kind of hard, so I just have to take more caution," Clark said.
He said he could help improve his energy by getting more sleep, don't stay long at practice and not overwork himself.
"I think I get enough rest, but it's hard to stop working when you want to continue your success," he said. "You just want to keep going. I never have played this much, so I don't know what toll it's taking on my body."
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