HOUSTON (AP) – Dwight Howard knows the best way to stop teams from using the “Hack-a-Howard” defense is to make his free throws.
On Saturday night, the normally free throw-challenged center did just that.
Howard scored 18 of his 25 points in the fourth quarter, including 13 of 19 free throws in a 2 1/2-minute stretch, and the Houston Rockets beat the Denver Nuggets 122-111.
“I just kept telling myself go up there and knock them down, make them pay,” Howard said.
Chandler Parsons added 20 points for Houston and James Harden had 17 for the Rockets, who never trailed and led by as many as 23. It was a welcome change from several of their recent games when they built big leads only to see them evaporate in the second half.
The Nuggets tried to get back in it with about 5 1/2 minutes left by intentionally fouling the center every time Houston had the ball.
The plan backfired and Howard, who entered the game shooting 49 percent from the line, finished 17 of 24 on free throws. Howard’s 24 free throw attempts were the most by a Rocket since Sleepy Floyd went 22 of 27 in February of 1991.
Nuggets coach Brian Shaw lamented using the tactic after the game.
“That goes against everything I’m about,” Shaw said. “I don’t believe in that and I don’t think it’s in the spirit of the game. So that is exactly what I get for doing that. I’m glad he made his free throws and it shows me to just be true to who you are.”
They were too slow in fouling him one time and Parsons dunked on a fast break on the other end. The play was reviewed and Houston got the basket and a foul shot by Howard.
Denver finally scrapped the defense with about 3 minutes left, to wild applause from the home crowd. Harden took advantage of the change to immediately knock down a 3-pointer to extend the lead to 118-101.
Howard was surprised when they stopped fouling him, standing with the ball for the couple of seconds waiting for them to do it. He said he doesn’t get irked when he’s intentionally fouled, but he knows it’s not very popular with the crowd.
“It’s annoying to the fans,” Howard said. “I know they don’t want to see that. We don’t want to have to go through that. But it’s a part of the game.”
Ty Lawson had 28 points and a career-high 17 assists to lead Denver.
“We just didn’t come out ready to play,” Lawson said. “It was our defense and our effort. We just didn’t play any defense in the first half.”
Lawson started despite sustaining a corneal abrasion to his right eye on Friday night after taking a hand to the eye. Lawson’s eye was almost swollen shut after Friday’s game, but Shaw said before the game that only a little swelling remained.
Terrence Jones tied career highs with 14 points and 12 rebounds for the Rockets.
The Nuggets outscored Houston 11-0 during a 2 1/2-minute stretch early in the third quarter to cut the lead to 66-59 with about 8 minutes remaining. Lawson got things going, hitting the first two baskets and Randy Foye added a 3-pointer during the run.
Howard went to the bench near the end of that run when he picked up his fourth foul on an offensive charge.
The Rockets rediscovered their offense after that, and used a 14-2 spurt to push the lead to 80-61 a couple of minutes later. Jones was great in those minutes, with two dunks and six points.
Houston led by 15 entering the fourth quarter. Howard, who sat out the last eight minutes of the third, was back on the floor for the start of the final period and immediately went to work.
He was fouled when he made a nifty reverse layup and made the free throw to push the lead to 93-75.
The Rockets led by 10 points with 10 minutes left in the second quarter before scoring 12 straight points to push the lead to 50-28 with about 5 1/2 minutes left in the half. Donatas Motiejunas scored seven points in that stretch and Harden capped it with a 3-pointer.
The Nuggets used a 13-7 run at the end of the first half to whittle the lead to 63-46 at halftime.
NOTES: Former Rockets star Yao Ming watched the game from a courtside seat. He received a standing ovation when he was shown on the video boards during a timeout in the first quarter. … Houston C Omer Asik, who has been the subject of recent trade rumors, was not in uniform for the game. Coach Kevin McHale said it was because he was “under the weather” but he didn’t elaborate.
– By KRISTIE RIEKEN, AP Sports Writer
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