Lakers can learn plenty from Heat

LOS ANGELES -- Truth be told, Dwight Howard has actually improved his free throw shooting since hitting an ugly trough in December that called national attention to the so-called "Hack-a-Howard" strategy in the fourth quarters of games.

He worked on it endlessly in practice and took the issue seriously, and the results bore some fruit (he's shooting 65.7 percent from the line in January after making just 52.7 percent in December).

But in one of the biggest moments of the Los Angeles Lakers' 99-90 loss to the Miami Heat on Thursday night, Howard short-armed one, the ball barely grazed the bottom of the net and everyone inside Staples Center let out a collective wince.

Howard looked stunned.

Did that really just happen? An air ball? Now? Again?

An uncomfortable smile crossed his face, but he quickly squashed it. This wasn't something to laugh off. Not with how hard he has worked on the issue. And not with how badly the Lakers needed to win this game and start building on something.

"I just missed it," he said afterward. "That's it. ... I'm going to miss some, I'm going to make some. It's basketball. Everybody misses free throws. I don't want to make a big scene about it. I missed some tonight. Just go back and practice and get ready for the next game. Everybody misses shots."

That was afterward, however. In the moments right after he air-balled the free throw (making him 5-for-13 on the night), Howard looked a lot like another guy who had something of an Achilles' heel a few years ago.

Guy by the name of LeBron James, who happened to drop 39 points and eight assists on the Lakers on Thursday night and is well on his way to another MVP award.

Remember when he supposedly couldn't make a game-winning shot? When he couldn't make change for a dollar because he had only three quarters with him? When he didn't have that mean streak to win it all?

All that talk is mostly dead now. James settled that last season in leading the Heat to the NBA title. And he reminded us of his now-strong, late-game prowess again Thursday as he hit what proved to be the dagger, a fallaway jumper to put the Heat up 96-90 with 49 seconds to go.

But the comparison is an intriguing one.

James is stronger now, mentally more than anything, because he was hardened by the firestorm he and his teammates endured the previous two seasons.

It doesn't always go that way. Sometimes the fire is too hot. Sometimes teams get swallowed up by it. Sometimes they run for the hills.

But if you come through it, oftentimes you're stronger for it.

In a lot of ways, what James and the Heat have done the past two years is also the best-case scenario for Howard and the Lakers.

This season has been something of a disaster for the Lakers. But so far, it hasn't broken them.

"We're definitely strong as a team," Howard said. "We've been through a lot. It never shook us. We've stayed together through all the criticism, for the most part. That's all you can do. At the end of the day, all the criticism and people saying whatever should make us stronger.

"We're starting to trust each other more and we've got to continue to do that."

James was correct last week when he said the criticism the Heat faced in 2011 after his ill-advised "Decision" was worse than what the Lakers have been hit with this season.

People hated James and the Heat. It felt personal. It got emotional.

They don't have that kind of ire for the Lakers. The rest of the country just seems to enjoy kicking them while they're down and psychoanalyzing their dysfunction.

But there is a lesson Howard and the Lakers can learn from how James and the Heat finally got over the hump.

The fire has to make you stronger. The Heat channeled into an "us against the world" mentality. They got mean. They closed ranks.

"We had a big target on our backs the last two years," Miami coach Erik Spoelstra said. "We went through that. We had moments where we felt like our backs were against the wall.

"I think those moments really strengthen you."

Well, they can if you respond to them in the right way.

The Lakers seem to be heading in the right direction lately. They picked up two nice wins this week, then had one of their best efforts of the season Thursday night despite the end result.

"If we continue to play like this, we should win a lot more games," Howard said. "We just came up short tonight."

It's hard to picture Howard or the Lakers finding the kind of anger Dwyane Wade did in 2011 when he famously said, "Everybody wants to see the Heat fail."

It's just not his personality. But maybe he doesn't need to go about it in the same way, so long as he gets there in the end.

"When something like that happens, you kind of have to have a sense of humor about it," Bryant said of Howard's air ball. "Big, strong guy air-balls a free throw? You kind of have to have a sense of humor about it, laugh about it and move on to the next one.

"He missed two tonight and then Ray Allen came down and hit a hell of a shot over him to make it a four-point play, but I think he's been doing a lot better at it."

Bryant's right. Howard has been better.

But to make this go away, to make the fire die down, Howard and the Lakers need to do what James and the Heat found a way to do last year.

They need to be steeled by it, not burned.