Howard Stymied by Boston's Old Tricks
First they turned LeBron James from superhuman into human soap opera. Now they are turning Dwight Howard into a professional wrestler.
That'd be fine if the Magic were going for the WWE title. But the last thing they need is for their center to start doing an imitation of the Iron Sheik whenever he gets the ball.
"They want me to wrestle and fight with them," Howard said. "That takes me off my game."
How off was he in the opener of the Eastern Conference finals? Howard made 3 of 10 shots. He whined like a wrestler who just had his steroids confiscated. He let one of the league's biggest headcases set up camp inside his noggin.
When you can make Rasheed Wallace look like Tim Duncan, you know you are doing something wrong.
Howard was hardly the only Orlando player with issues. His teammates couldn't have shot much worse if they'd been wearing boxing gloves. The fact they still had a chance to tie it in the final minute shows how dangerous this series will be for Boston.
But the fact Boston so thoroughly smothered Orlando's pop-a-shot attack will keep Stan Van Gundy awake for the next 48 hours. The Magic hadn't lost a game in 44 days. They aren't playing the Hawks or Bobcats anymore.
"We're a defensive team," Ray Allen said.
When it comes to Orlando, the first job of any defense is to discombobulate Howard. Orlando's attack is based on him drawing extra defenders, which opens up the firing range for the Magic's gunners.
Boston decided to cover the outside and let its centers take their chances against Howard. His array of jump steps, spin moves and baby hooks were body-slammed by Boston's Committee on Centers.
That would be Kendrick Perkins, Big Baby Davis and Wallace. The 15-year veteran has infuriated much of New England with his lackadaisical play this season. But on Sunday he was Mr. Savvy Veteran, poking and prodding and flustering Howard.
"It was a team job," Wallace said. "You have to be physical because he's physical."
Physical is another word for "fold, spindle, mutilate, whatever." To call it merely a Hack-a-Dwight doesn't give Boston's big men enough credit. They aren't just thugging Howard into missing those shots.
But it helps that the Celtics have 18 fouls to give. Charlotte worked the ugly approach beautifully in the opening round, limiting Howard to 9.3 points a game.
More importantly, the Bobcats found Howard's Irritation Button. He fouled out of two games and was fined $35,000 for criticizing the officials. The Magic could afford that against Charlotte. If the Celtics are playing L.A. or Phoenix in two weeks, you know who will get most of the blame in Orlando.
"I think Dwight is mislabeled," Doc Rivers said. "He doesn't have to score to create offense."
His mere presence opens things up for everybody else. It's not Howard's fault everybody else made only 5 of 22 3-pointers on Sunday.
It is his fault when he tries to back into Wallace, gets bumped, loses his balance, falls backward and gets called for traveling. Then he looks at the ref with that tortured smile and gets a technical.
Isn't Rasheed the one who's supposed to be losing his composure and getting technicals?
"I thought today defensively he did some old tricks that were just terrific," Rivers said.
That's what they used to say about Sgt. Slaughter, only that was pretend. What the geriatric Celtics have done the past couple of weeks seems almost as unbelievable. They didn't just beat Cleveland, they sent the entire city into a sweat-drenched deathwatch over LeBron.
Images are forged in the playoffs, and the current one of James is a dazed, frustrated mega-talent who can't produce when it really counts.
The main difference with Howard is that a Magic playoff ouster won't fuel rumors that he's going to the Knicks. And he has a lot more help than James did.
"Some nights where he gets things rolling, it opens it up for us," Vince Carter said. "So we have to kind of return the favor."
They better not wait much longer. The Celtics have already reclaimed the home-court advantage. The Magic knew this was not going to be easy. What they didn't know was how hard the Celtics would make it on Howard.
"We're going to continue to support and stay on him to try to make sure he's not frustrated," Carter said. "And just play basketball and have fun."
It didn't look like much fun Sunday, though Iron Sheik Howard said he wasn't frustrated. Rivers said the same thing.
"If it was there, I didn't see it," he said. "I hope to see it on film. That would be great."
Just rewind the tape of the last series. Howard looked a lot like a guy from Cleveland.