ORLANDO -- Sometime in the summer of 2012, Dwight Howard will be faced with a decision. He could sign a lucrative new deal with the Magic, a contract that would undoubtedly swell his bank account and guarantee he spends the rest of his formative years with the team that drafted him. Or he could walk away, turning his back on the team and its slightly higher salary offer in favor of the glamour and profile that comes with playing in the New York or Los Angeles markets.
There will be many factors that will influence Howard's decision but none bigger than this: Winning. Yes, Orlando's best chance to keep its franchise center in Magic blue is to win and emerge as the class of the Eastern Conference, outgunning Chicago, Miami and most importantly, Boston.
The Magic understand this. It's why GM Otis Smith detonated a pretty good team last week and put the fate of the franchise in Gilbert Arenas's thrice surgically repaired left knee and Hedo Turkoglu's slowly fading game. Maybe they were good enough to beat Chicago or Miami with the old group. But not Boston. They knew it after the Celtics wiped the floor with them in last season's conference finals and became even more convinced of it after watching Boston boost its frontcourt depth with the additions of Shaquille O'Neal, Jermaine O'Neal and Semih Erdin.
The Celtics, you see, will be as involved in Howard's future as any prospective suitor. Not because Boston is a threat to sign Howard; but by beating up on the Magic over the next two postseasons, they could effectively punch his ticket out of town. It's what makes every game against the Celtics important, every win a reason to exhale. Saturday's 86-78 win wasn't artistic but it looks a heck of a lot better than a loss.
"Everyone prepared different today than they usually do," Arenas said. "Usually it's goofy around here but today was more serious. I can see why."
If the Magic did take Saturday's game more seriously, it didn't always show. Much of that has to do with Boston, which even when ravaged by injuries (Rajon Rondo and Erdin have recently joined Perkins and Delonte West on the injury report) still manages to impose both its style and its will. The Magic were everywhere in the game's first four minutes, knocking down three-pointers and suffocating the Celtics defensively. But they allowed Boston to climb back during an ugly second quarter and flummox Howard (six points in 34 minutes) on nearly every offensive possession. The Magic won the game, but in doing so they didn't sap an ounce of Boston's confidence.
No team gets under Howard's skin as well as Boston. They send defenders in waves, bumping and grinding Orlando's All-NBA center, begging him to bump back. It's easy for them; when Shaquille O'Neal gets in foul trouble, Jermaine O'Neal is ready to replace him. When both O'Neal's pick up a few, Glen Davis is there to pick up the slack. They tangle him up, pull him down and hope a couple of calls go in their favor
"There was no question they were using Shaq to try to get Dwight in foul trouble," Stan Van Gundy said.
Indeed, the Celtics wanted Howard to get frustrated, which he did in the third quarter, picking up fouls No. 3 and 4 early that sent him back to the bench. Boston's roughhouse tactics clearly weigh on Howard, who feels overly scrutinized by referees when he gets a little rough back. After the game Howard crossed paths with Arenas on his way to his locker. He leaned over and tapped his new teammates shoulder with the tip of his index finger.
"Foul," Howard said. "Welcome to the Orlando Magic."
It will be critical for Howard to continue to study Boston, to find new and better ways to defeat them. Howard has dangerous weapons around him again, top-shelf talent that will carry some of the load. But against Boston, the onus will be on him to step up. Come playoff time, Perkins and Erdin will be back and the Celtics will have the bodies to single cover Howard and lean on him for 48 minutes. The decision to trade Marcin Gortat has left the Magic paper-thin up front and a foul-filled game or two for Howard could spell the end of Orlando's season.
The Magic can't afford that. The clock is ticking on Howard's tenure in Orlando. He may not be a lock to stay in town if they win but he sure won't be sticking around for long if they lose.
Van Gundy said he wasn't surprised when Howard was whistled for a 10-second violation during a free throw attempt in the third quarter. "We've had a couple of calls from [NBA Vice-President] Stu Jackson on the 10-second call. We told [Dwight] before the last game the referees had been instructed to call it." When asked the last time he saw a player hit with that call, Van Gundy said "today was the first."... Even if the Celtics win a title this season, Shaquille O'Neal says he will be back for at least one more year. "I've missed 2 ½ seasons due to injury," O'Neal said. "If I'm with this team and we're playing like this, I can probably play two or three more seasons."... Arenas says he is enjoying his new role with the Magic. "The offense is made for guards who can score," Arenas said. "We still have another month before you can tell what we can do. But I really think we are going to be able to score a lot of points with this group."