Hack is blamed, but it’s Lakers who are out of whack

HOUSTON — It began with a little more than three minutes left, an arena that was half-empty at tipoff suddenly rocking, the Lakers suddenly wobbling.

Houston Rockets fans stood behind the Lakers’ basket at the Toyota Center as Dwight Howard stepped to the free-throw line, their arms waving, noise sticks thumping, voices roaring.

Miss, miss.

Six seconds later, it happened again. Rockets guard Carlos Delfino grabbed Howard in the backcourt, forcing the Lakers center to make another lonely march to the free-throw line.

Miss, make.

Houston was just getting started with its Hack-a-Howard strategy, and the Lakers were finished during an eventual 107-105 setback.

The Rockets may not have beaten the Lakers because they intentionally fouled one of the worst free-throw shooters in the NBA, but they certainly left them feeling beaten down.

Howard was forced to answer the same questions he had two nights earlier, when the Orlando Magic employed the same tactic in another Lakers loss.

Was he expecting to be fouled? How frustrating was it? What’s his take on that strategy?

“Everybody’s trying to win,” said a subdued Howard, who made five of 10 free throws in the final minutes and eight of 16 overall.

Howard certainly wasn’t responsible for the Lakers’ giving up 34 points in the fourth quarter or yielding 21 offensive rebounds or committing 18 turnovers.

But had he simply made three or four free throws in a row as soon as the Rockets started deliberately nudging and poking him, all this silliness would have stopped.

“If they’re going to intentionally foul Dwight,” Lakers guard Kobe Bryant said, “we have to figure out how to try to use that to our advantage in some way.”

Lakers Coach Mike D’Antoni was incredulous when a reporter relayed a question from Lakers fans who wondered why D’Antoni didn’t remove Howard from the game.

“Because they have no clue what they’re talking about,” D’Antoni said. “It’s pretty simple. You don’t do that to a guy and he made his foul shots. He’s not the reason that our defense breaks down. He’s not the reason that stuff happens. He’s got to work through this.

“If you take him out now, then what are you going to do? Are you going to take him out all the time? You’ve got a player who’s going to be your franchise player, you don’t do that to him. And it’s not him that’s causing the problem.”

To be fair, the Lakers were leading by four points when the Rockets started fouling Howard and they were still up by two when Howard made three consecutive free throws, prompting Houston to resume playing basketball.

Of course, by then the Lakers’ offensive flow had been completely disrupted. Bryant, so brilliant while scoring 36 points over the game’s first 45 minutes, missed three of the four shots he could get off after the Rockets started fouling Howard.

“It comes under the category, ‘You do what you have to do to win the game,’” Houston interim Coach Kelvin Sampson said.

It’s a plan that is apparently gaining traction around the league.

Lakers guard Chris Duhon, who came over with Howard from Orlando this summer as part of the Andrew Bynum trade, said he couldn’t recall teams intentionally fouling Howard like this in consecutive games.

Howard better get used to it. A 58.8% free-throw shooter before this season, he has made 95 of 203 (46.8%) of his free throws since the opener, easily putting him on pace for a career low.

“It’s OK,” Howard said. “I’ll get better. I’m going to keep shooting. I’ll step up to the line and knock them down.”

The Lakers don’t really have any other options. They couldn’t go with Pau Gasol late in the game because the power forward was wearing jeans, a pink dress shirt and a black velvet sports coat after having decided to sit out to rest his sore knees.

There’s a simple solution, really.

Make, make.

Howard putting this ridiculousness behind him is as easy as that.