ORLANDO, Fla. – The Orlando Magic didn't just send a late-season message to the defending champion Boston Celtics on Wednesday night. They left them with a not-so-subtle reminder for their almost-inevitable second-round playoff matchup.
Dwight Howard has grown big enough and strong enough to force his will on even the best teams, and the Celtics are the latest contender to realize as much. With Howard delivering another of his Superman performances, the Magic led from start to finish before fighting off a late Celtics charge, pushing them into a virtual tie for the second best record in the Eastern Conference.
The only question now for the final three weeks of the regular season is whether the Celtics (54-19) or the Magic (53-18) get the home-court advantage when they meet again in a seven-game series.
After the 84-82 loss to the Magic, the Celtics insisted that they don't really care about the court because they can win anywhere. The Magic carried a decidedly different tune.
"It would be great to have home court because I'm sure we'll see them [Celtics] again,'' Howard said. "And I'm confident that we can beat them. I'm confident we can beat any team in the league if we play like we can.''
Spoken like a guy who just dominated.
Howard had 24 points, 21 rebounds and four blocked shots, including the final one when Paul Pierce drove the lane and tried to steal the game with 4.9 seconds remaining. For good measure, Howard forced Pierce into an altered 3-pointer at the buzzer that didn't come close.
"Dwight was just incredible, unbelievable,'' Magic coach Stan Van Gundy said. "He was tremendous. When we look at the film, we'll learn some things. When you have to gut out a win like that, it only gives you more confidence and resolve that you can do it again."
Howard has been unbelievably good all season, even though he won't finish even among the top three in the MVP balloting. Like the Magic, his acclaim has been slow to come. This was his eighth game this season with at least 20 points and 20 rebounds. The rest of the league combined has totaled only six 20-20 games. No other player has done it more than once.
Howard also has 10 games in which he had at least 15 rebounds and five blocked shots, which explains why he's close to becoming just the fifth player ever to lead the league in both categories in the same season.
"When he first came into the league, he beat people with pure athleticism. Then he started beating them with skill," Magic coach Doc Rivers said. "When he gets the whole package together I hope I'll be doing television."
If and when they meet the Magic again in May, the Celtics will hold the advantage in four of the five starting positions. Point guard Rajon Rondo, now in his third season, will blow past Rafer Alston. Shooting guard Ray Allen will school rookie Courtney Lee. Paul Pierce will score on small forward Hedo Turkoglu almost anytime he wants. And Kevin Garnett should toast Rashard Lewis.
Yet Howard makes it all even. Four to one doesn't sound fair unless that one is Superman. The key to the series will be keeping Howard on the floor and out of foul trouble. If he stays clean, the Celtics may have trouble getting past the second round because they have no one to guard him. Nobody else does, either.
For the Magic, who haven't been past the second round of the playoffs since Shaquille O'Neal left in 1996, Wednesday was a breakthrough victory. The teams split their four regular-season meetings. The Magic also are even with Cleveland in the season series.
"We'll see this team again. To get to our goal, we'll have to go through Boston and Cleveland,'' said Rashard Lewis. "But we welcome that challenge.''
Garnett, in his fourth game back after missing a month with a muscle strain in his right knee, played only 17 minutes. But as Van Gundy quickly pointed out, the Magic dominated the game when Garnett was playing, giving them a 10-point advantage with him on the floor.
Van Gundy loved the win, loved the way his team out-defended the best defensive team in the league, and he didn't like any suggestion that it was tainted because by Garnett's less-than-full contribution.
"All I know is, we've beaten a lot of the teams that everyone thinks are better than us,'' he said. "The perception of us does not always match up with reality. We're not feared defensively, but I'll put us up against anyone in the league when it comes to being ready to play night in and night out.''
Howard had his double-double in the first quarter, the fourth time this season he has done it so quickly. He ended the third quarter with a flurry that was typically Dwight-like, but so unlike anyone else in the league. Spinning to the basket, Howard took a lob pass from Turkoglu that was thrown near the top of the backboard, catching it between Kendrick Perkins and Glen "Big Baby'' Davis, putting both into his poster dunk.
Then he raced down court to block a buzzer-beating shot by a surprised Rondo.
Howard, 23, has turned this franchise into a contender again, allowing the Magic to assemble a team of shooters that capitalizes on his inside presence. Even on a night when Turkoglu made only 3 of 18 shots, and the Magic scored only 14 in the final period, they beat the defending champs.
The victory also was further evidence of how the Magic have withstood the loss of All-Star point guard Jameer Nelson. They're now 14-4 since Alston arrived, proving that a great center can overcome a myriad of other problems.
"With Dwight, my job isn't as difficult as you might think, even coming in the middle of the season,'' Alston said.
Howard, now in his fifth NBA season, has never been past the second round of the playoffs, and he likely won't get there this year unless the Magic can get past the Celtics. After Wednesday, they have more reason to believe they can.
"I don't think this team lacks for confidence,'' Van Gundy said. "People can say what they want about us, but this isn't the BCS. People aren't voting to see who plays for the championship. That's decided on the court. And I like that."