ORLANDO, Fla. – The passes were angling into those massive hands of Dwight Howard(notes), the officials blowing the whistle on the Boston Celtics whenever they were within arm's reach. This was one of those nights when a franchise force wouldn't allow a basketball season to die. Howard had himself a grand, old time on open-mic night in Boston, but truth be told, he had the burden of sparing the Orlando Magic an ignoble end.
Howard had to make the stand of his professional life on Thursday night, resolve his words with deeds. They'll let you call out the coach for failing to get the ball to you, but once it comes, the public is no longer turning to the frumpy middle-aged moustache on the sidelines. When the rest of these Magic were trying to regenerate themselves after brutal Game 4 and 5 losses to the Celtics, Howard played the part of the franchise player and thrust everything onto himself.
Once you take on the coach, it is a short trip to where the paying public takes on you. All right big guy, how about the man in the mirror?
"Game 7," Howard mused late Thursday, "it's really like this is my college experience right here."
He had 23 points, 22 rebounds and three blocked shots to get to Game 7 on Sunday night. He still can't make a free throw – missing seven of 12 – but Howard was monumental on the boards, 6-foot-11 and 270 pounds lifting that flailing Celtics frontline onto his back, into the air and with him toward the rim. Howard screamed into the Amway Center night, and a desperate sellout screamed back to the young center in a jagged 83-75 victory.
The Magic showed something on Thursday, especially when Paul Pierce(notes) started dropping jumpers in the fourth quarter and a lead was lost. There was a different resolve to the Magic when it mattered most. Had the Magic been able to make free throws, this wouldn't have been a one-point game with two minutes left. They missed 14 for the game – including Howard's seven – and Howard's brute strength and a friendly home whistle nearly fouled out the Celtics frontline.
When asked how difficult it was to draw a foul on Howard near the rim, the fearless Rajon Rondo(notes) – who tried drive upon drive – sniffed, "Almost impossible." Boston had chances to steal the game, but Orlando had a different desperation. The Magic are hellbent on chasing Ray Allen(notes) everywhere on the floor, and his shooting bottomed out.
Pierce still comes and goes. Rondo had a remarkable 16 rebounds with his 19 points and six assists and four steals. Yet, Kendrick Perkins(notes) and Big Baby Davis were in constant foul trouble with Howard, and the Magic lived in the free-throw penalty. Orlando shot 31 free throws to Boston's 13, a stat borne of Orlando's elimination-game aggression. Even Celtics coach Doc Rivers had to concede that, "They play harder than us in a lot of stretches."
From the opening tip, it was clear that Magic coach Stan Van Gundy wanted to get the ball inside to Howard. "They made a concerted effort to go to him," Pierce said. "Other games, they didn't look to him."
At times, Howard can still struggle to find a go-to move, something he can rely upon besides just thundering a dunk on your head. As a matter of practice, that's a hell of a weapon. Yet, this series has been a marvelous education for Howard and his Magic. These Celtics have played three Game 7s in the past two years, but as Rivers warned, "Just because you're in Boston doesn't mean you're going to win the game."
Pierce spent part of his postgame news conference sending out an uneasy vibe to the Magic, insisting that these Game 7s, well, "They're not for everybody."
Across history, the Celtics are a surreal 32-0 when leading a best-of-seven series 3-2, and have won 17 of 20 Game 7s in their magnificent history.
"It's going to happen sometime," Van Gundy said. "This year … next year … 20 years from now. I don't think they're going through their entire history and not lose a series. So, we'll go be the first."
For Howard, the pressure was getting the Celtics into position to blow one. For the Magic to reach the conference finals for the first time since Shaquille O'Neal(notes) was Orlando's center, they'll need the best of Dwight Howard in the Garden on Sunday. He declared himself a franchise star this week, demanded the ball, the pressure – demanded it all – with the season on the line.
All those banners hanging in the Garden, all those champions on the floor for the Celtics, and the Magic will be there because Howard willed them. He called this his college experience, the NCAA tournament he never had, and that's almost suggesting that this is some kind of freebie for him and the Magic. Not at all. Howard doesn't need to be a playoff student studying history. He can make it.
That's the beauty of Game 7.
They're not for everybody.
"Do or die," Dwight Howard said with a knowing nod.
- Dwight Howard