Free throws, mistakes nearly cost Lakers win

MINNEAPOLIS – The basketball is in Steve Nash’s hands, then quickly tossed away.

The ball is a rebound that no longer matters.

Ricky Rubio’s hands are on his head. The clock rests at zero. He doesn’t know where to walk or to look.

Jason Phillips, a referee, is answering the Timberwolves point guard: “No. OK, all right.”

But that was all. No redo, no replay, no reversal of that irreversible buzzer.

Lakers win, 120-117. They win despite Kobe Bryant’s errant arm, flung into Rubio’s potentially game-winning shot, an obvious foul if you ask the Timberwolves, a topic to evade if you ask Mike D’Antoni.

Lakers win, 120-117. There are no free throws. There is no overtime. There is no end to the Lakers’ head-to-head winning streak over Minnesota, which now stands at 22 games, longest in the league.

If you’re the Timberwolves, the game comes down to that final split second, to Rubio’s shot from five feet beyond the 3-point line, to the all-too-real chance that they might have taken the Lakers to overtime. But for the players in the purple and gold, the ones who walked off the court breathing a sigh of relief, the game was about something very different.

It was one in which their best player was also their biggest liability, and it hinted at problems much bigger than the worry that some referee might have called Bryant’s foul and opened up the chance at a loss.

Dwight Howard played spectacularly. Dwight Howard can’t shoot free throws. And on Wednesday, each of those facts mattered about as much as the other.

Through 43 minutes of Wednesday’s game, Howard was good for 23 points. His team was up by 12 over the hapless Timberwolves, and the thing looked to be over. There was one dunk, with 6:24 to go, after which Howard dangled from the rim just a split second longer than he should have, just a split second long enough to claim ownership over that hunk of enemy metal, and you had to think there was no chance for a comeback.

You had to, until Hack-a-Dwight began. Down 12, the Timberwolves began fouling. (And fouling and fouling and fouling.) Howard missed six of eight free throws, and with two minutes to go in the game, Minnesota was within six points of the Lakers. The game that had looked so far out of reach, that had seemed to reinforce the notion in Minnesota that to watch the Timberwolves play the Lakers is to lose complete and utter hope, was suddenly a game, and Howard had been neutralized.

Ask the Lakers, and it’s nothing. They won the game, after all, so who’s going to dwell on those giant hands and that tiny ball and how those two factors combine to render the big man impotent at the free-throw line?

“You think about it all the time,” D’Antoni said when asked if he ever considers taking Howard out in those instances. “But we’re not going anyplace without him, and he’s got to get over it. And he will. We have faith in him. It’s not going to happen if I jerk him out.”

Howard said Hack-a-Dwight is just a strategy, and it slows down the other team’s rhythm. Sure, maybe, but when the Timberwolves cut the lead in half by using said strategy, there are some gaping holes in the Lakers center’s logic.

Ask Chase Budinger about it, and he’ll tell a different story. He has no vested interest in whether Howard can perform that most rudimentary of tasks. He’s finished with the Lakers for the season, and there will be no playoff berth for the Timberwolves. But he still smiles when he thinks about those six misses.

“It’s that’s something for the Lakers that they might have to worry about in the playoffs, or something like that,” Budinger said. “But it was a blessing for us that he missed so many free throws and got us back in the game.”

Twenty-five points and 16 rebounds are great. So is 9-of-13 shooting from the field, and those thundering dunks don’t hurt either. There are so many moments when Howard makes you believe that the Lakers are for real, when he grabs one of those perfect alley-oop passes, when the rim positively shudders at his touch, when he swats away a shot and you wonder if he might just have flattened the basketball.

On Wednesday, Howard had five blocked shots and five steals. That’s two more blocks than all 12 Timberwolves combined. He dominated, overshadowing Bryant’s 31 points for much of the game. But that’s all so easy to forget when missed free throws change the game from a pleasant rhythm to a thumping, sputtering mess.

That dichotomy is this Lakers team in a nutshell. One minute they’re good, back on track, coasting toward the playoffs. The next, Dallas and Utah are biting at their heels and they melt into a three-game skid. It’ll be more of that, most likely, to round out the season, and on Wednesday, the Timberwolves were collateral damage in Kobe and company’s frenetic race for an eight seed.

The Timberwolves will say the Lakers got lucky. They’ll say they tried their hardest, that their strategy worked, that they should have been given that final chance. And they’re probably right.

Howard got his free throws, all eight in that crucial three-minute window, every single one that he deserved in full. Rubio, too, deserved his three at the end, or even the chance for his shot to go in.

And so we’ll wonder. We’ll watch videos of that instance. We’ll forget Hack-a-Dwight and maybe even Super Dwight.

As for Ricky Rubio, the Timberwolves and what could have been?

“I don’t want to think about it,” the point guard said. He meant it.

Follow Joan Niesen on Twitter.