BOSTON – In the middle of the locker room, Dwight Howard(notes) whipped around to his teammate, Rashard Lewis(notes). The magnificent Orlando Magic center's eyes were wide, and a mischievous smile curled over his lips. He wore a brown argyle v-neck sweater, and looked like a prep school kid dying to tell a raunchy joke in class.
"Hey," Howard blurted. "We're 2-0 when we call out a coach!"
And they all just started to laugh again on Sunday night, because there's still so much of a goofy kid within Howard. Howard had just been marveling over the 32-1 that Stan Van Gundy had written on the empty greaseboard in the locker room.
The Boston Celtics had been undefeated in their peerless history when leading a series three games to two, and now the Magic had come to the Garden for Game 7 and obliterated the defending champions 101-82. Perhaps these Magic will always see Howard as something of a gentle giant, the goofball with the Superman cape and clownish charisma. That's just him. Now, the Magic see something else, too: a forceful voice, to go with a ferocious talent.
"Even though he was saying it about coach," Lewis said, "I think it was a message for us, too. We're the guys who have to get him the ball, and we took notice of that. If he's going to defend and rebound for us like he does, then we've got to get him the ball."
In his own way, on his own terms, Howard made the leap from franchise player to franchise leader in the Eastern Conference semifinals. After a Game 5 debacle, he publicly demanded Van Gundy get him the basketball more, and that placed the burden of performance onto Howard. All around the Magic dressing room, they stopped. Howard never, ever talked that way.
Whatever discomfort came to Van Gundy, it was clear the Magic loved that Howard had stepped out of comfort and into combat.
"He did that for a reason," Lewis said. "He wanted the pressure on himself."
Those who called his proclamation selfish were missing the truth of the matter: The Magic needed to be jarred. They were down three games to two, and falling apart. Howard saved the season with 23 points and 22 rebounds in Game 6, and ultimately, 16 rebounds and five blocks in Game 7. Though the Magic penetrated Boston's K.G.-less defense for layups and wide open 3-pointers in Game 7, the victory was made possible with the way Howard protected the basket.
This is blasphemous here, sure, but there was a lot of Bill Russell in the way Howard dominated Garden floor. The shots he didn't block, the mere threat of him frightened the Celtics into countless rushes and misses. The resolve of the Celtics was a hellacious test for these young Magic, but it's a shame Howard never had the chance to test himself with Kevin Garnett(notes). It would've been an epic, but that knee wouldn't allow K.G. back on the floor.
"I always loved playing against K.G.," Howard said. "He has been a role model for me my whole life. I just hope he comes back 100 percent."
Privately, the Celtics were still hoping that they could steal Game 7 and buy more time for that knee. Sources said that Garnett had been riding the exercise bike feverishly the past week, and even starting to shoot the ball. He hadn't been able to step onto the practice floor, though. Still, the Celtics were waiting on his surgery for a reason.
"We were hoping," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. "But I didn't think it would happen."
Maybe it won't matter. With a Cavaliers-Magic conference final, the Celtics have to wonder whether the advancing age of their stars could make it too hard to get past the precocious superstars in Cleveland and Orlando.
LeBron James(notes) will have a hell of time getting to the rim with the NBA's defensive player of the year waiting for him there. There's a reason Orlando beat the Cavaliers two of three times in the regular season: Howard awaits James' drives to the basket. These aren't the Pistons and Hawks. The Cavaliers will win this series because of James, but Rashard Lewis had a reminder for everyone: "We have a superstar, too. We've got Dwight Howard."
This was an immense series for the Magic. They blew leads. They fell apart late in games. Sometimes, they just looked so lost. Everything changed at the Garden on Sunday night. All the history here, all the Game 7 lore, and the Magic just destroyed the Celtics. No new banners, no more hope that K.G. could pull his Willis Reed in these playoffs.
For the Magic, Howard hasn't suddenly become Patrick Ewing, a jump shooter who never had the stomach to dominate defensively in the pros like he did at Georgetown. Howard has never made any predictions he couldn't back up, unlike Ewing, who did – again – on the eve of Game 7.
Howard had nine shots in Game 7, but his guards were feeding him easy dunks on the Celtics' defense. "I don't think he was trying to focus on getting touches to try and score, as much as getting touches and staying involved," his agent, Aaron Goodwin, said. "People are always going to say that a guy should just be quiet and play but that's not how it works. I don't think Stan changed anything, but the other players became more focused, more aware, about trying to keep him involved. Dwight loves pressure, and I think it put pressure on Dwight to come out in the next game."
Dwight Howard is 23 years old, and he still has a long way to go to become a complete basketball player. Now, he has the Magic in the conference finals. He went out of his way to call Van Gundy a "great mentor" for himself and "our leader," but he never once took back those words after Game 5. Damn right, the ball needed to go through him. The message was unmistakable: Remember who runs things here.
It was good for the aw-shucks Howard, and even better for the Magic. They needed someone to speak his mind, challenge everyone and deliver the deeds himself. "I believe we can win a championship," Howard said. "We have the right team. We have the talent. We have the right coaches."
They won't win it this year, but understand that it is inevitable with Howard. There was a little history in the Garden on Sunday night, a little Russell. Summer for the Celtics, and the Eastern Conference finals for the Magic. Time doesn't wait for Boston, but LeBron waits on Dwight Howard now.
Here comes Game 1 on Wednesday in Cleveland, and Howard had the standing to say out loud what everyone else was thinking in that winning locker room on Sunday night: When Howard calls out a coach, a locker room and takes over his team, well, history shows there's no beating the Orlando Magic.