Enigmatic Howard has Warriors' attention 

Stephen Curry knows all too well the longevity of the Hack-a-Whoever concept. He was on the bench at Oracle Arena on Jan. 13, 2013, when then-Magic center Dwight Howard was sent to the free-throw line an NBA record 39 times.

“I doubt that’ll happen with who’s coaching our team,” Curry said when asked about the potential for a repeat.

Curry’s words fittingly summed up just how drastically the NBA’s landscape has changed in less than three years: different Warriors team, different leader and strategic mentality, and of course, a different Dwight Howard.

Back then, the Warriors started Andris Biedrins and Charles Jenkins in the middle and were led by Mark Jackson. Howard, meanwhile, was in the conversation as the league’s Most Valuable Player and dominant two-way player, coming off five straight All-NBA First Team honors, three consecutive Defensive Player of the Year awards and an MVP runner-up selection.

How rapidly moving parts and NBA narratives change — and how they also, in some ways, manage to stay the same, starting with Howard. While the 6-foot-11, 275-pound stalwart’s regular-season averages of 15.8 points, 10.3 rebounds and 1.3 blocks remain a far cry from his usual 22-15-3 routines during his prime, the Rockets were still seven net points better per 100 possessions with Howard on the floor this year. And in the postseason, his play is even more so mimicking his former phone-booth emerging self.

Against the Los Angles Clippers in the conference semifinals, Howard’s performances were indicative of the Rockets’ success. He averaged 20.0 points and 16.8 rebounds in their four wins compared to just 14.3 points and 10.0 rebounds in their three defeats.

More telling, facing elimination in the fourth quarter of Game 6, Rockets coach Kevin McHale elected to sit star guard James Harden, trotting out Howard alongside Jason Terry and wingmen Trevor Ariza, Corey Brewer and Josh Smith. The result: an enormous amount of space offensively for Smith and Brewer to knock down 3-pointers, a stifling defense funneling directly into Howard’s paint presence and a shocking 119-107 victory. For a quarter, anyway, Houston vaguely resembled the 2008-09 Orlando Magic team that rode Howard to the NBA Finals.

“When he gets going, they generally win games,” Warriors center Andrew Bogut said of Howard and the Rockets. “He’s athletic, strong and likes to get his stuff inside the paint. Even though it’s not a ‘pain game’ for our team defense, I think for me, it’s a big ‘pain game.’ He’s very similar to Z-Bo [Memphis Grizzlies forward Zach Randolph] in the way he plays but is obviously just 10 times more athletic than Z-Bo.

“He gets pretty rough in there, there are elbows flying, and that’s what it is, especially in playoff, especially with two big fellas. I don’t anticipate [the physical play] being worse than Grizzlies, but you never know.”

Of course, one realm remains fairly constant for the Houston big man: free-throw inaccuracy. A career 57.3-percent shooter, Howard shot 52.6-percent from the foul line this season, while regressing to 41.3-percent in the playoffs thus far.

As such, Clippers coach Doc Rivers frequently and apologetically employed the Hack-a strategy against Howard last round.

Warriors coach Steve Kerr has reiterated his intention not to play that dubious fouling game against Howard going forward, though McHale may use the tactic on the likes of Bogut and Andre Iguodala to muck up the Warriors’ offensive rhythm.

Draymond Green followed his coach’s lead, refusing to reveal much about his thoughts on the tactics should Houston lean (or foul) in that direction.

“It is what is,” Green reiterated more than once after Monday’s practice. Said Bogut: “We anticipate it happening at times. I don’t think it works as much as people think it does. Houston did it with the lead [against the Clippers], and then they lost a lot of their momentum ... As long as the big fellas can go down and knock down 1 of 2, I don’t really see it happening that much.”

Intentional fouls or not, it feels oddly fitting the Warriors’ potential NBA Finals run goes through Howard. He’s been something of a lightning rod in the Bay Area, generating plenty of spectacle in his handful of East Bay visits.

Howard set the free throw record here in 2013, declared the Atlanta Hawks “the best team” in the NBA this season following the 126-113 loss in Oakland in late January and drove Warriors owner Joe Lacob to remind fans that the franchise was “a lot closer than people realize” to adding him during free agency two off-seasons ago.

Tonight that subplot comes full circle with Bogut’s post battle against his could-have-been replacement.

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Jack Ross

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