As needed, Dwight Howard steps up

LOS ANGELES -- At the end of a very long night, near the end of a very long, very disappointing season, the Dallas Mavericks had one play left.

Hack Dwight Howard.

Challenge him. Put him on the free throw line with the season hanging in the balance for both teams, and make him and the Los Angeles Lakers earn it.

Yes, it's just eighth place in the Western Conference at stake. And yes, that's still an embarrassing reality for both franchises. But the time to dwell on that has long since passed. If either the Lakers or Mavericks are going to make the playoffs and avoid further embarrassment, they basically had to have this game.

That Shaquille O'Neal was in the house Tuesday night, looking on after the Lakers retired his No. 34 jersey in a raucous halftime ceremony featuring appearances by Phil Jackson, Jeanie Buss and Kobe Bryant, only added to the intrigue.

Miss the free throws, crumble under the pressure and Howard would have had a hard time living it down. But as he has started to do near the end of this very long season, he dug in, dug deep and made them.

In all, Howard made eight of his 12 free throw attempts over the final 4:04 to help the Lakers to a 101-81 victory over Dallas and remain in the thick of the playoff race.

Dallas had cut the Lakers' lead to seven points before going to the Hack-a-Howard strategy. But that's as close as the Mavs would get, as Howard locked in from the line in much the same way he did when his former team, the Orlando Magic, put him on the line for an NBA record 39 free throw attempts last month.

He was smiling for most of it. When he makes his free throws after opponents go to the strategy, there's plenty to smile about. When he misses them, it's excruciating to watch.

O'Neal was long gone from his courtside seat by the time Howard had to cross this latest threshold. But if he'd been there, you get the sense he would've been rooting for him.

After all that has been said between the two men over the years, O'Neal finally extended an olive branch to Howard before the game.

"I'm just doing to him what others did to me," O'Neal said. "I was a young kid averaging 20 [points a game]. Someone asked Kareem what he thought of me. He said, 'He's an OK player, but he doesn't have any championships.'

"It wasn't really a diss, I just think it was Kareem's issuance of a challenge to me to step it up a little bit. I'm not criticizing the guy, I'm just issuing a challenge."

That may not sound like an olive branch in the traditional sense. O'Neal is still criticizing Howard. Tuesday he added a new round, saying, "The other guy [Howard] needs to step into his own. I would like to see him average 28 and 10. That's the number that was thrown in my face, 28 and 10, so that's the number I'm always going to throw in his face.

"'I see a kid with a lot of talent. When I see him averaging 16 or 18, that's not enough for me."

But if O'Neal were really trying to cut into Howard, he'd simply ignore him. If he felt he was truly unworthy, he wouldn't bother.

No, there's something there. Something more than just O'Neal jabbing at the young guy with the similar backstory and disposition.

When you get older, when a franchise like the Lakers decides to retire your jersey, you start thinking not only about your place in the game but your responsibility to it. To push the next generation, to pass the baton to worthy successors.

"Those guys, the greatest, they have egos," Lakers forward Antawn Jamison said. "And if anybody plays the same theme music or whatever, they can talk. He's got four rings? He can talk.

"It's just like Michael [Jordan] or Scottie [Pippen] or those guys. If you put in the work, you can talk. I think he [Howard] just has to have thick skin because he is the most dominant big man in our game today, and those guys who played before him, they're going to let him know about it."

Much like Bryant's comments on the first day of training camp, when he stood up and said his job over the next two seasons was to prepare Howard to carry the torch for the Lakers after Bryant has retired, that's what O'Neal's comments Tuesday felt like.

"I look what he did at the dunk contest, when he dunked 15 feet," O'Neal said of Howard. "That's incredible. I don't think Wilt [Chamberlain] would have been able to. I know I definitely wouldn't have been able to do that. I just look at stuff like that, he has potential to be one of the greatest big men ever.

"But he has to want it."

It was a compliment and another challenge.

In years past it sounded petty, but on the night O'Neal ascended to the rafters of Staples Center, it felt more like advice.

And while Howard understandably still doesn't really want to hear it, there might come a time when he sees things differently.

"I don't compare myself to Shaq. I'm Dwight Howard," he said. "We just have had some similar things that have happened to us. We both started in Orlando, got traded to the Lakers.

"But like I said, I'm happy for him, despite everything that he's ever said about me. I think it's a big honor for him to have his jersey retired. That's what we all want as players is to have our numbers retired."

Howard has lived as a Laker for nearly a season now. He has felt the weight of the franchise on his shoulders and his surgically repaired back. At times, he has withered under the pressure. At times, he has simply looked like a guy still returning from back surgery.

But recently, he has looked like a guy who has started to find his footing. He has passed tests like the one the Mavericks threw at him Tuesday night.

Who knows, Shaq might have even been rooting for him?