May 15, 2009

ORLANDO, Fla. -- Before he even took a question Thursday, Celtics coach Doc Rivers delivered his verdict on the best one-on-one matchup in the Boston-Orlando series. "I guess Dwight Howard was right," Rivers said. "He was unbelievable."

Actually, Howard was wrong. And if you don't believe that, just ask him. After the Magic collapsed down the stretch in Game 5 of their Eastern Conference semifinal, the 24-year-old complained publicly that Magic coach Stan Van Gundy didn't order enough touches for him. The player with the broadest shoulders in the NBA wanted to carry his team, but he wanted Van Gundy to toss the Magic into his arms. "When you have a dominant player," Howard said, "let him be dominant." During a meeting Wednesday to clear the air, Van Gundy -- who has endured an avalanche of justifiable criticism for his game management during this series -- offered a suggestion. Make your own touches.

Thursday, Howard did just that.

In Orlando's 83-75 victory (BOX | RECAP), Howard scored 23 points and grabbed 22 rebounds. Eleven of those points were direct results of offensive rebounds, of which Howard had 10. On a night when the Magic couldn't have thrown the ball in the Walt Disney World lagoon, Howard cleaned up the mess and allowed himself to dominate.

The Magic shot 36.6 percent from the field and made just 6-of-26 three-point attempts, and it took them until the fourth quarter to realize that if they attacked the basket, the officiating crew of Dan Crawford, Dick Bavetta and Marc Davis couldn't help but blow their whistles. The crew rung up the Celtics for nine fouls in the final quarter and 28 for the game. Orlando shot 31 free throws to the Celtics' 13. But until the Magic unlocked that poorly kept secret, Howard kept them competitive by crashing the boards and by challenging Boston shots.

"The biggest thing for me was that I didn't worry about not getting touches," said Howard, who averaged 3.4 offensive rebounds in the first five games of the series. "Playing against a good defensive team like Boston, the only way I was going to get touches was to crash the boards. ... It's not about the touches. It's about being dominant."

Just in case Van Gundy's message didn't sink in Wednesday, veteran guard Anthony Johnson provided Howard a reminder during Thursday's morning shootaround. "It's not about getting shots," Howard remembered Johnson saying. Howard also thought back to the words of Johnny Davis, his first head coach in the NBA. "He emphasized going to the offensive glass," Howard said. "That's the easiest way to get a bucket."

The tempest that followed Howard's Tuesday outburst raged mostly out of his earshot. He kept his video game consoles on and ESPN off. Inside the Magic locker room, Howard's words were dismissed as pure frustration vented by a superstar still young enough to commit the venial sin of airing the team's dirty laundry in public. "It was nothing," point guard Rafer Alston said. "We don't think about it. We understand frustration comes with basketball. He's right in the sense that we've got to get him the ball. He's wrong in the sense that he went through the media."

Thursday, Howard seemed to better understand his own abilities. He's not Hakeem Olajuwon, a back-to-the-basket superstar with a vast arsenal of go-to moves. Howard hasn't developed his game to the point that his team can run its half-court offense through him. If Howard had been a high school football star instead of a basketball prodigy, would have eliminated any position designation and rated him a five-star athlete. His physical gifts are so great, he can dominate by outrunning, outjumping and outmuscling. That is his skill set. It's what makes him one of the NBA's best on the boards and on defense.

Howard grasped that Thursday.

"When Dwight is playing with the energy and the effort he played with tonight - you know, maximizing his athletic gifts - he's just a very, very tough guy to play on the move," Van Gundy said.

Howard will have to expend even more energy in Sunday's Game 7. The Celtics have won three Game 7s in the past two seasons, and they'll have a wild home crowd behind them. Howard, who skipped college and therefore missed out on the single-elimination meat-grinder that is the NCAA tournament, seems intrigued by the do-or-die atmosphere. "This'll be my college experience right here," Howard said. "It's one and done."

This week has provided a form of higher education for Howard. He spoke his mind, but Professor Van Gundy stood his ground against his star pupil and suggested a better solution. In the process, Howard learned two valuable lessons.

"Keep my mouth shut," Howard said. "And admit when I'm wrong."

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