Howard looking to find Magic free throw touch

BY foxsports • October 14, 2009

"Twenty," Ewing said, passing the ball back.

The next shot finally clanked. Then came a grimace and a grunt.

"Restart the count," Howard called out.

This scene plays out daily for the Magic big man.

The All-Star center has surprisingly hit as many as 28 straight free throws in practice during Orlando's training camp. The work is all part of his goal to rid his free-throw woes after missing a costly pair in the waning seconds in Game 4 of the NBA finals, a blown opportunity that still haunts Howard.

"It's not gone yet. Every day I wake up and I think about what happened," Howard said. "Every day I get a reminder when I turn on the TV ... first thing I see is Kobe (Bryant) putting up the championship sign. You think about it, and I haven't stopped thinking about it since we lost. I put some of the moments away, but losing something when you're so close, it hurts. So you don't want to go through that experience again."

Howard is a dominant presence in the paint and he attempted more free throws (849) than any other player last year. That's why he has gone to great lengths trying to solve his problems at the stripe.

Howard spends nights at the Magic's practice facility, even inviting friends to blast music and distract him during shots. There are days he takes more than 300 free throws and he's usually the last player to leave the court.

"He's dedicated to make himself a good free throw shooter," point guard Jameer Nelson said.

Practice has never been Howard's problem. The games are where it hurts.

He's a 60 percent career free throw shooter, a big reason why the Magic often turned elsewhere for offense in the final seconds in the playoffs last season. The finals are where it really stung.

In Game 4, Howard set a finals record with nine blocked shots, had 16 points and 21 rebounds. He was putting on a performance for the ages, then he was fouled with 11.1 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter and Orlando ahead 87-84. All he needed was to make one and the game would likely have been sealed and the series tied.

He clanked them both. The Lakers rallied. The Magic were eventually eliminated.

"I'm going to be better this season," Howard said. "We're going to be better. We fell short last season. We just want to win a championship now."

Howard isn't the first All-Star center to struggle at the line.

Shaquille O'Neal and Wilt Chamberlain stand out the most, a pair of dominant big men who have six NBA titles between them, but never could solve their free-throw stroke. O'Neal (52 percent) and Chamberlain (51 percent) rank as some of the worst free throw shooters in league history.

The 23-year-old Howard still has time to avoid that club. His teammates and coaches are also expecting him to have a big free throw upswing this season.

"From the free throw line this year, I think 75 percent is realistic for him," Magic coach Stan Van Gundy said. "He can shoot free throws. I'd be really disappointed with anything below 70 percent. He's capable of doing that. And if he makes free throws, you just can't hammer him anymore. When he's hitting 70 percent, he'll be very difficult to guard. He's pretty difficult to guard now."

Howard agrees he should be shooting a much higher percentage on free throws this season.

He's worked on being more consistent with his delivery - elbows in, legs bent, focused and following through. Now, he said, it's just a matter of getting things done when it counts.

"This summer was just trying to fine-tune a lot of things," Howard said. "Knocking down free throws, all that stuff, I've been working on every year. The biggest thing is having confidence and just doing it."