Shaq's shadow threatens to eclipse Howard

Never has there been a Cleveland Cavaliers game that LeBron James(notes) has played in that didn’t showcase him as the star of the show. That changes on Nov. 11 when the Cavs visit the Orlando Magic. Even James will be bumped to the marquee’s second rung to make room for the clash between Shaquille O’Neal(notes) and Dwight Howard(notes).

“That’s all everybody is talking about,” Howard said in a phone interview recently. “People that hit me up on Twitter, that’s the first thing they say, ‘Are you ready for Shaq?’ ”

For Howard, there’s no escaping Shaq now. After losing to the Magic in the Eastern Conference finals, the Cavaliers traded for O’Neal to help them better match up with Howard. The rivalry between the two centers escalated last season when O’Neal accused Howard of hijacking his Superman title and claimed he had already “invented” everything Howard had done.

O’Neal also took shots at Magic coach Stan Van Gundy, memorably labeling his former Miami coach the “Master of Panic.” During the NBA Finals, Shaq posted a rather unflattering picture of what he said the “love child” of Howard and Van Gundy would look like.

There is a lot of showmanship to O’Neal’s act, but Howard understands this much is serious: One of his biggest rivals now resides in his division, playing for one of the East’s top contenders. Though their war of words has largely been one-sided, Howard and O’Neal will now meet on the court four times this season – and quite possibly again in the playoffs.

“I haven’t spoken with him,” Howard said. “I’ve seen a lot of the comments that he has said on TV and read a lot of the comments that he’s made. I would say it hurt my feelings, a little bit, just to hear him say some of the things he said.”

Looking back on last season’s Eastern Conference finals, it’s easy to understand why Cleveland wanted O’Neal so badly to counter Howard. The Cavs had no defensive answer for the Magic’s All-Star center, so they took a gamble that O’Neal is still enough of a force at age 37 to stand up to him.

“Everybody has said, ‘Cleveland got Shaq for you. Cleveland got Shaq to win a championship,’ ” Howard said.

The Magic haven’t been content to rest on their own success. Knowing they would likely lose versatile forward Hedo Turkoglu(notes) in free agency, the Magic traded Courtney Lee(notes), Rafer Alston(notes) and Tony Battie(notes) to the New Jersey Nets for Vince Carter(notes). Orlando also re-signed center Marcin Gortat(notes) and added forwards Brandon Bass(notes) and Matt Barnes(notes). Though Carter gives the Magic another dynamic scorer, the departure of Lee and Battie has weighed heavily on Howard.

“Tony, he was kind of like my big brother,” Howard said. “We grew up together. He helped me become the person I am today. So just to see him leave was sad. I didn’t want to see him go.

“Courtney, that probably hurt me more than anything. Two days after the Finals, me and him were already talking about what we were going to do next season to get back to the Finals. We were looking forward to it and hanging out, just talking about how we were going to make ourselves better.

“And then I wake up a couple days later – the same day Michael Jackson died – I got the message that Michael died and then got the message that my teammates were traded. It was a pretty bad day.”

Now that the Magic have pretty much finished reshaping their roster, Howard understands they remain one of the league’s top championship contenders.

“Everybody knows Vince,” Howard said. “He’s one of the best two guards in the game. He can do just about anything on the floor.

“I really like our team.”

Orlando’s loss to the Los Angeles Lakers in the Finals still hangs on Howard. He took 2½ weeks off before returning to the gym to work out, likening himself to Scrat, the saber-toothed squirrel in the animated movie “Ice Age.” Scrat is obsessed with acorns. Howard presumably feels the same way about the Larry O’Brien trophy.

“If you saw the movie, you know what I’m talking about,” Howard said. “You see that championship trophy right in front of you. And then it seems like someone took it away. I was devastated. I still haven’t fully recovered from it. I’ve never been so hurt in my life.”

Howard knows he can’t dwell on last season too long. This season promises to present its own challenges. Facing Shaq figures to be only one of them.

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