Neither has advanced in the playoffs, giving both something to prove when the Orlando Magic and Toronto Raptors open a best-of-seven playoff series on Sunday. The team that contains the other young All-Star will have a good chance of surviving.
“Everybody wants to be a big-time player, and to do that, usually you have to do that in the playoffs,” Bosh said. “The regular season is cool, but now is when everybody is watching.”
“We’re going to become enemies,” Howard joked. “It’s going to be Superman versus Lex Luther.”
The pressure is probably more intense on Orlando’s caped crusader.
The Magic have home-court advantage for the first time since the strike-shortened 1999 season. They’re hoping it will help them advance beyond the playoffs’ first round for the first time since 1996, when Shaquille O’Neal took the team to the Eastern Conference Finals.
Orlando hasn’t even won a playoff game since 2003, thanks to their four-game sweep at Detroit’s hands after sneaking into the postseason last year. Another early exit would be crushing after the Magic improved 12 games over last season and won their first division title in a dozen years.
“I think we’re more motivated, more mature than we were last year,” Howard said. “Last year was just ‘happy to be in the playoffs.’ This year it means something to us. We want to get out there and make people who don’t believe in magic start believing in it.”
The teams are similarly built with perimeter shooters surrounding an inside star. Toronto ranked second (39.2 percent) and Orlando fourth (38.6 percent) in the league in 3-point shooting percentage, though the Magic took a lot more shots. Their 2,074 regular-season attempts trailed only Golden State, while Toronto’s 1,459 attempts put it in the middle of the pack.
The Magic have made at least five 3s in all 82 games this season, shattering the NBA record of 51 consecutive games set by Phoenix in 2005. By another measure, 3-pointers averaged per game, Orlando had the second-best season in NBA history behind the same Phoenix team (9.77 a game, compared with the Suns’ 10.21).
But Bosh says the series won’t be won from behind the 3-point line.
“We know this team shoots a lot of 3s, but we can’t get into that,” he said. “It’s won in the paint. It’s won with defensive and offensive rebounding and getting easy baskets. You can’t fall in love with that 3. You can maybe win one or two games, but this is a seven-game series.”
In Howard, Bosh will face one of the NBA’s best inside players. The 22-year-old is averaging 20.7 points and a league-leading 14.2 rebounds.
His biggest weakness remains free throw shooting. Howard was better from the field (59.9 percent) than the line (59 percent). He has also been neutralized when he gets in early foul trouble, a strategy the Raptors seem sure to try.
“Obviously if he gets in foul trouble, is that going to help us?” Raptors coach Sam Mitchell said. “Yeah. But there are no plays.”
The Magic worry about Toronto’s pick-and-roll and haven’t found an answer for Bosh. He has averaged 22.7 points in 13 career games against Orlando, more than any other team. The forward hung 40 points on the Magic on Feb. 20 in a 127-110 Raptors win, the team’s highest offensive output of the season.
Magic coach Stan Van Gundy wouldn’t say who he’d put on Bosh, a tough matchup for a team without a true power forward. Rashard Lewis slid into the position after Tony Battie’s season-ending shoulder injury, but isn’t Orlando’s best defensive option. Howard had trouble when Bosh faced up on him in the team’s second of three regular-season games, when the Raptors star scored 40.
“He’s just a great player, and a guy who can score in a lot of different ways,” Van Gundy said.
Toronto finished the last two months of the regular season 9-17, so Orlando has the momentum. The Magic also have a bit of a chip on their shoulders—the No. 3 seeded team is rarely mentioned as an Eastern Conference contender.
Van Gundy downplays the idea, but some players draw on it.
“Nobody’s ever given us a shot to do anything,” Howard said. “Personally, nobody’s ever given me a shot to do what I’ve accomplished, and as a team it’s been the same way. We’re just going to go out and play our game.”
And put that friendship aside.