Howard sets FT record; Horford, Melo hurt

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Thursday was a painful day in the NBA.

Painful for the fans, who had slim pickings from the five-game slate of snoozers and blowouts. Painful for a handful of teams who lost key players to injury. And painful for the purists, who watched Dwight Howard historically distort the sport.

Repeatedly sent to the line through intentional fouling, Howard broke Wilt Chamberlain’s 50-year-old record for free throws in a game, attempting 39 and sinking 21 as the Orlando Magic edged the Golden State Warriors, 117-109, to complete a 3-0 West Coast swing.

Perhaps Warriors coach Mark Jackson was reading my column, where we noted Howard was 40-of-94 from the line this season and suggested putting him on the line. Jackson started the strategy late in the first quarter and continued it at the tail end of each quarter once his team was in the penalty.

Part of Jackson’s plan also was driven by the unavailability of Kwame Brown, who likely is out for the season with a torn pectoral muscle, the currently chic injury. And if you saw the pathetic attempts at defending Howard made by Andris Biedrins and Ekpe Udoh, Jackson’s strategy seemed somewhat sound.

From Josh Robbins of the Orlando Sentinel: “Jackson employed the Hack-a-Howard strategy, asking rookie Klay Thompson to foul Howard even before he crossed the midcourt stripe on Orlando offensive possessions. Ultimately, two Warriors players, Andris Biedrins and David Lee, fouled out. Thompson and Ekpe Udoh had five fouls apiece. “The guy missed 18 free throws,” Jackson said afterward. “I can understand people thinking, ‘Why?’ But don’t get caught up in the free throws. Think about when we didn’t foul him. Dunks, hooks at the rim — he’s a great player and a bad free-throw shooter.” Lee said: “That’s a chance you take.” It was almost comical. One of Howard’s teammates likened it to a videogame. Magic assistant coaches Ahmad Ajami, Bob Beyer, Steve Clifford, Patrick Ewing and Brendan Malone would recommend plays to Stan Van Gundy. But Van Gundy eventually turned to them and said something like, “What’s the point of calling a play? The Warriors are just going to foul Dwight anyway.”

Jackson’s strategy worked, to a degree. The Warriors held a 107-106 lead with under three minutes to go. But Howard had a tiebreaking three-point play off an offensive rebound, and the Magic held on.

Howard finished with 45 points and 23 rebounds, the first 40-20 game since Shaquille O’Neal did it nearly eight years ago. It’s easy to see why teams are jockeying to acquire the impending free agent, something the Warriors did last week.

From Rusty Simmons of the San Francisco Chronicle: “It was a crowd that would love to see Howard in a Warriors uniform, a possibility that was pursued via trade last week but never materialized. It now seems unlikely, even though coach Mark Jackson seemingly made a pitch to Howard by telling him during a timeout that he’d look good in Warriors garb.”

Why is Howard never in the initial discussion of the game’s best player? Chamberlain, who is Howard’s idol, once said, “Nobody likes Goliath.” Talented big men historically are saddled with unrealistic expectations and unfairly cast as villains. Even Shaquille O’Neal – who experienced the dynamic for much of his career and should know better – piled on during TNT’s studio show, scoffing at Howard’s season averages and said they should be more like “28 and 15.”

Fine. But answer this question for us. You are the GM of an NBA team. It is the start of training camp, and your owner wants a championship this season. Every player is a free agent who can be signed to a one-year contract. Who is the first player you sign?

I might sign Howard, who is the most dominant player in the league at his position. In his next post, SheridanHoops columnist Mark Heisler will have a story about how one of the elite teams is angling to acquire him – and another All-Star.

Part of what makes Howard so dominant is the dearth of quality centers patrolling the paint, which was reduced by one Thursday when the Atlanta Hawks learned that they will without All-Star Al Horford, likely for the rest of the regular season with – you guessed it – a torn pectoral muscle.

Horford, who was part of this week’s Bernucca List, suffered the injury in Wednesday’s loss at Indiana and is expected to be out three to four months. He plans on seeking a second opinion to see if surgery is necessary. The earliest he could return is mid-April, with about two weeks left in the season.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Michael Cunningham had a rundown of the Hawks’ financial limitations and available big men: “Atlanta’s payroll currently is slightly above the luxury-tax threshold of $70 million. The roster players without salary guarantees include guards Jannero Pargo, Donald Sloan and Jerry Stackhouse and forward Ivan Johnson. Veteran free agent centers include Erick Dampier, Kyrylo Fesenko, Dan Gadzuric, Joel Przybilla, Earl Barron and D.J. Mbenga.”

Not exactly Wilt Chamberlain. However, the Hawks could go another route. Apparently, Rasheed Wallace is considering a return to the NBA.

From Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports: “Wallace, who retired after 15 seasons in 2010, has been working out and probing some close league friends about possible destinations to sign for the rest of the season, sources said. At 6-foot-11, Wallace, 37, had been one of the most versatile and talented power forwards of his era. One league source who has talked with Wallace recently describes him as “serious” about a return to the NBA this season. Nevertheless, no teams contacted by Yahoo! Sports reported that they had any contact with Wallace, or his representative.”

For one night at least, the Hawks were OK without Horford – mainly because they were playing the Charlotte Bobcats, who are simply awful. Atlanta rolled to a 111-81 win as Josh Smith continued his stellar play with 30 points and 13 rebounds and Joe Johnson – whom we implored to step up his game – added 23 and eight assists.

Zaza Pachulia started for Horford and had a double-double in 32 minutes. Pachulia is not the long-term answer because he is a reserve who doesn’t pass well pass or know how to manage his fouls when playing starter minutes. He probably would not be a fan of Wallace joining the Hawks, for a number of reasons.

Savants like myself will remember that Wallace actually played one game for the Hawks in 2004, when Portland traded him to Atlanta, which shipped him to Detroit a couple of days later.

The Knicks had their four-game winning streak ended with a dispassionate loss at Memphis, but that wasn’t their biggest loss of the night. Leading scorer Carmelo Anthony left the game twice with injuries and didn’t return after the second one, which could keep him out a while.

From Howard Beck of the New York Times: “A sprained right ankle knocked Anthony out early in the second half, leaving the Knicks adrift in a 94-83 loss to the Memphis Grizzlies. The team is listing Anthony as day to day, leaving him questionable for Saturday night’s game in Oklahoma City. Anthony also sprained his left wrist Thursday and afterward said it was still numb. He was already dealing with back, knee and hip injuries. “Yeah, I’m beat up,” he said with a smile. “I want to see how I feel by Saturday. I’m not going to force it. If my ankle’s not right by Saturday, then I’ll be looking at Monday.”

Anthony is fourth in scoring at 25.5 points, not the guy you want to be missing when your next game is a visit to the league-leading Oklahoma City Thunder. His teammates struggled without him Thursday as Amar’e Stoudemire shot 1-of-7, Toney Douglas was 3-of-13 and rookie Iman Shumpert an unconscionable 5-of-20.

Elsewhere …

  • The Bucks beat the Pistons to give Scott Skiles his 400th career coaching win. Milwaukee and San Antonio are the league’s only teams that are unbeaten at home and winless on the road. Greg Monroe had 32 points on 12-of-16 shooting and grabbed 16 rebounds. He is a restricted free agent in 2014, for those of you who plan for that sort of thing.
  • The Cavaliers won at Phoenix as rookie Kyrie Irving had 26 points and six assists in a nice duel with Steve Nash, who had 16 points and 15 dimes. In his last three games, Irving is averaging 22.3 points and 5.0 assists while shooting 56 percent from the field.
  • First returns on All-Star balloting were released Thursday, and the voting is over. More on that later.
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