ORLANDO -- If Dwight Howard wants to keep that Superman moniker -- if he wants to deliver on his promise to bring an NBA title to Orlando -- he better turn his game up another notch real soon.
Playing Shaquille O'Neal -- who is well past his prime and 14 years older -- to an uninspired standstill like he did Wednesday night won't get his team anywhere close to the Finals again.
He knows it. And his coach certainly does, too. The Defensive Player of the Year and defending rebounding champion has been rather pedestrian lately.
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"He (Howard) has not been as dominating defensively or on the boards in the last four or five games,'' Magic coach Stan Van Gundy said. "I know that has to change for us to be good. And right now, we're not a very good team.''
The much-anticipated clash of the titans -- Howard vs. O'Neal, the current against the former best NBA center -- turned into an afterthought in a game that failed to deliver any real suspense.
In a rematch of last spring's Eastern Conference final, the Cavaliers throttled the Magic, 102-93, on their home floor, looking wise in their decision to add O'Neal to their roster, even at the risk of upsetting a delicate chemistry.
O'Neal didn't do much statistically, getting 10 points, four rebounds and two blocked shots in 20 minutes, but he played a huge role by getting into the head of Howard, who fouled O'Neal twice in the first three minutes. Howard quickly lost his aggressiveness, and the Magic never seriously challenged.
Without Howard's aggression around the basket, the Magic are just an average team. He finished with 11 points, seven rebounds and one block in 32 minutes.
"Foul trouble makes him play tentative. We have to address that,'' Van Gundy said. "He's having trouble getting those double-figure rebounding games right now. He hasn't blocked the shots like he was. If Dwight were playing defensively like he did last season, we'd be better.''
The Cavs (5-3) can be championship contenders with O'Neal in a supporting role. The Magic (6-3) can't do that with Howard, the franchise foundation. Howard has been in foul trouble in five of the last six games. He reached double-figure rebounds in only two of the six games. He has only three blocked shots combined in the last five games.
"I know my defense, my rebounding is not where I'd like it to be,'' Howard said after the loss to Cleveland. "But it's just a phase right now. When I'm playing defense like I should, everything comes together.''
Howard led the league in rebounding (13.8 rpg) and blocked shots (2.9 bpg) last season. After nine games, he is averaging 10.6 rebounds and 1.4 blocked shots. His scoring has dipped from 20.6 ppg to 18.4 ppg.
"You saw the game. I'm not satisfied,'' Howard said. "It's not all about stats. It's about winning games, and getting better. We're just not where we want to be right now, but it will improve. It's a long season. It will pick up.''
Van Gundy, meanwhile, is getting impatient. He insisted Wednesday that his team can't compete defensively with the Celtics, Cavaliers, or even the Heat, in the Eastern Conference. He made it clear that he wasn't blaming Howard -- that the whole team was struggling -- but he wanted his center and his point guard Jameer Nelson to lead the turnaround that he expects.
"It starts with those guys, the two returning guys, the captains,'' Van Gundy said. "It's not all on them, but they are supposed to be the leaders. It has to start with them.''