ORLANDO, Fla. – He had called out his coach, demanding he give him the ball, give him the right to carry the Orlando Magic through the playoffs, and now Dwight Howard(notes) was finally having to follow his own marching orders. Stan Van Gundy looked at Howard late Tuesday, the roar of the crowd falling upon them, and delivered a simple message to his franchise star.
Want the ball?
Go get it.
Howard walked back onto the court, and LeBron James(notes) and the Cleveland Cavaliers never had a chance. Dunk. Dunk. Layup. One possession after another, Howard punished the Cavaliers in overtime, bouncing them out of his way, jamming the ball down upon their heads.
This is what superstars do. Howard wanted the pressure and he delivered, carrying his Magic to a 116-114 victory, giving them a 3-1 lead over King James and the Cavs in the Eastern Conference finals. One more win and Howard, not James, will be playing for an NBA title.
This is what should have the Cavs worried, now and for the future. It wasn't the Detroit Pistons or the Boston Celtics forever standing in their way of a championship. It was Howard, the 6-foot-11 giant with the comic-book nickname and cartoonish biceps. Once Howard grew into a dominating force, once Superman returned to Orlando, the entire NBA had reason to fear.
"He's a beast down the middle," James said.
The Cavaliers still have their own monster, and that's why the East finals aren't over yet. LeBron is putting on a series for the ages, scoring 44 more points on Tuesday to go along with the 49, 35 and 41 he hung up in the first three games. He's capable of winning one more game, if not three, and he nearly won Game 4. After throwing in one 3-pointer while falling out of bounds, he then forced the Magic to gasp while his 35-foot heave at the buzzer glanced off the rim.
"When you've got a guy as great as him on the other side," Van Gundy said, "you're a long way from done."
But Van Gundy also knows LeBron hasn't scrambled the Magic's defense the way Howard has that of the Cavs. When Mo Williams(notes), Ben Wallace(notes) and James all complained after Game 3 that the Cavs were giving Orlando too much respect, they meant Howard in particular. By doubling him, Orlando's shooters could pick them apart.
So the Cavs laid off Howard to start Tuesday, and he made them pay, scoring 11 points in the first six minutes. They went back to double-teaming him for much of the next three quarters, and Howard scored just six more points before the start of overtime. Still, all the attention he drew freed the Magic shooters, most notably Rafer Alston(notes) and Mickael Pietrus(notes), who combined to make 11 3-pointers.
"We need one stop," James said. "We haven't got one stop to win a ballgame yet."
James has realized he can't beat Howard and these Magic alone. He received more support on Tuesday than he did in Game 3, but it still wasn't enough. Williams made just two shots after halftime, falling flat, so far, on his "guarantee" that the Cavs would win the series.
In truth, Williams' vow wasn't as foolish as another declaration he made: "We're the best team in basketball," he said on three separate occasions Monday, as if repeating his words actually brought them any closer to the truth.
As Williams is fast learning, the Cavs' 66 regular-season wins, much like his All-Star selection, don't count for much in the playoffs. From Alston to Pietrus to Turkoglu to Rashard Lewis(notes), who buried another clutch 3-pointer at the end of regulation, the Magic have had one player after another step up and support Howard. All Williams has done is hurt the Cavs with both his shot and mouth.
"I thought about what he said, and I wanted to take it to him," Alston said of Williams. "And he wasn't the guy even guarding me."
Howard, too, has chafed at the attention given to promoting a possible Finals showdown between LeBron and Kobe Bryant(notes). After Game 3, the most recent entry on Howard's personal blog was headlined, "IT'S TOTALLY DISRESPECTFUL!!!!!!!!"
In Howard's mind, the disrespect has also carried over to the court. In the third quarter, Cavs forward Anderson Varejao(notes) tried to pull Howard down by the neck as he drove to the rim. Howard still made the shot, and he turned and growled in Varejao's direction. Referee Scott Foster hit Howard with a technical, his sixth of the playoffs. One more and he'll have to serve a one-game suspension.
"I might have to really use some duct tape," Howard said.
NBA commissioner David Stern has evidently forgotten that athletics do feature a little thing called emotion. These playoffs have been filled with far too many technicals and flagrant fouls, and now one of the game's biggest stars is on the brink of suspension. If the league has any sense of justice, Howard's tech will be rescinded.
Howard had further reason to be angry by the time OT arrived. With half a second left in regulation, James drew a blocking foul on Pietrus which allowed the Cavs to tie the game. Howard failed to get a call on the ensuing possession when he went up to get a lob and became entangled with Varejao. Both calls were borderline and could have gone either way. All Howard knew was both went against the Magic.
"Are you kidding?" he shouted at a row of reporters after the fourth quarter. "If that was LeBron … "
Howard has battled for respect all season as he's tried to transition from star to superstar. From the refs. From his coach. From his predecessor. When the Phoenix Suns visited here in March, Shaquille O'Neal(notes) mocked him by showing up to the arena wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the familiar "S" logo.
"We all know who the real [Superman] is," O'Neal declared.
Shaq was sitting courtside on Tuesday for Howard's latest heroic performance, and the irony wasn't lost on either the Magic or the Cavs. The Cavaliers discussed trading for O'Neal at the deadline, in part, because they thought he could help them better match up with the Magic. Cleveland ultimately didn't do the trade because the Suns wanted Wally Szczerbiak's(notes) expiring contract instead of Wallace's own cap-clogging deal. It seemed like the right decision at the time. The Cavs were rolling. Why risk messing with the team's chemistry?
But now? On Tuesday, Cleveland could have used someone to keep a body on Howard. If the Cavs go on to lose to the Magic, it wouldn't be a surprise to see them re-explore a possible trade for Shaq, even if striking an agreement seems tougher with Szczerbiak's contract off the books and Shaq and Wallace both in the final season of their deals.
So Shaq sat and watched as Howard dominated the same court he once owned. Before the start of overtime, Van Gundy told Howard he needed to be more aggressive. He needed to set tougher picks. He needed to roll to the basket harder.
There was a time when Van Gundy didn't want Howard to have the ball in such moments. Howard didn't even want it himself. He was too poor a foul shooter to be entrusted with that responsibility.
"I think earlier in my career, probably early this season … I probably would have shied away from touching the ball toward the end of the game," Howard said.
Not on this night. He dunked over the Cavs. He made his free throws. He scored 10 of his 27 points in overtime. With the final seconds ticking off the clock, LeBron drove hard to the rim one final time. Howard leaped with him, unfurled his long arm and snuffed out the shot.
Once again, Dwight Howard stood in the way of King James and his Cavaliers. Like it or not, they're getting used to the feeling.